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Friday, June 13, 2008

The shocks keep coming

June 13, 2008
Coby Cosh, National Post

A Canadian Press/ CBC investigation into censored reports of Taser use by the RCMP has introduced a distressing new data point into the discussion of the controversial electroshock weapons. The force itself has formally warned members that, because of medical concerns relating to the electronic guns, they should administer multiple Taser jolts to a suspect only in the most extreme circumstances. Yet CP and the CBC have documented a pattern of increase in the fraction of Taser subduings that involve multiple blasts: The figure was 32% in 2002 but had risen to 45% by 2007.

Police forces have good answers, or at least semi-credible ones, to many of the questions surrounding the Taser. Anyone who has some knowledge of the beat cop's work can only be glad that there exists a level on the "continuum of force" between
bare-handed self-defence and the bullet. Not every criminal suspect can be reasoned with, despite the faith of some critics in the power of calming language. And many police forces require officers equipped with the Taser to take a jolt from the weapon before it is issued -- an impressive show of faith in its safety.

At least it might have been impressive, until we heard about this intensifying tendency to deliver multiple sustained electrical charges to unarmed suspects. Unlike police trainees getting a five-second hit, these people may receive the darts directly in the chest without a paramedic standing by.

How can figures indicating an increasingly frequent use of a torturously painful push-button weapon be defended? Were criminals more violent in 2007 than they were in 2002? Did they gain height and weight? Did they become more intractable under arrest? Logic points toward the conclusion that has been supported mostly by anecdote until now: As time goes by, police forces equipped with the Taser become more casual toward its use, and less responsible, even when there are strong written guidelines supposedly in place. In some videotaped confrontations between Taser-wielding cops and suspects, it is easy enough to detect that what started out as a nonlethal method of protecting the public, its property and the lives of policemen has gradually become a tool to elicit quick compliance with police instructions, and sometimes just an easy means of silencing backtalk.

A report on Taser use and doctrine from the RCMP's complaints commissioner is to be released next week. We do not know what it contains, but we do know that what is needed in determining public policy surrounding the Taser is more hard data of the sort hitherto painfully extracted only through access to information requests. The temptation to outlaw the weapon class, given what we know about patterns of deployment, is nearly irresistible. But we don't really know whether outright suppression of its use would reduce or increase harm to the public and to the police.

Perhaps the time has come for a scientific trial: Pick 2,000 policemen with street-level responsibilities, inside or outside the RCMP, and take the Taser away from a randomly selected 1,000 for a year or two, leaving them to walk the beat as a control group armed with the tools and skills of the year 1980. (Obviously, partners working together would have to be placed in the same group.) If this were done, and the work of both groups were carefully documented, we could measure and compare harms using any suitable endpoint, counting injuries and deaths to suspects, injuries and deaths to police, sidearm deployments or suspects who successfully absconded. Whatever relevant measures we decide upon in advance as the most important could be tracked.

At this point, it might be wise for Canada's police to agree to such a controversial experiment, as an alternative to losing the Taser outright for good on a wave of outrage that is almost entirely of their own creation.

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