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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Taser damage questioned

June 18, 2008

OTTAWA -- Nearly one-third of the people the RCMP has zapped with Tasers needed medical treatment afterward, prompting new questions about a potent weapon police consider a safer alternative to conventional guns.

A joint investigation by The CP and CBC-Radio-Canada of more than 3,200 incidents in which Mounties fired the powerful electronic devices reveals more than 28 per cent were later examined by medical personnel.

The figures, covering the last six years, ranged from 16 per cent of cases in Nunavut to almost 42 per cent in Prince Edward Island.

A Taser can be fired from several metres away and cycled repeatedly once steel probes puncture a suspect's skin or clothing. The guns can also be used in up-close stun mode -- a sensation likened to leaning on a hot stove -- resulting in blisters or burns.

Of 3,226 people the RCMP hit with a Taser from 2002 through last year, 910 were examined in a hospital or other medical facility.

The findings emerge from an analysis of standard forms RCMP officers must file each time they pull a Taser out of its holster. Thousands of heavily censored pages -- stripped of names and other personal details -- were obtained under the Access to Information Act.

The secrecy makes it difficult to get a picture of the extent of the injuries.

RCMP policy says that if the Taser is fired from a distance, a member certified in first aid may remove the probes. "It is not necessary to have a medically trained person examine the individual, unless a probe is lodged in a sensitive part of the body, such as the eye or the groin, or the individual's physical condition warrants medical attention."

Officers are also told to make note of injuries, photograph them and obtain a statement from the person.

Officers are supposed to advise those zapped that the effects will be short-term, but also ensure they receive medical care "if any unusual reactions occur or if you think that he or she is in distress."

However, Germain Quesnel of Richmond, B.C., says he suffered a heart attack behind bars after being repeatedly Tasered by the RCMP in March 2003. Quesnel called police over an altercation he was having with his stepson. The Mounties arrested Quesnel, shocked him several times to get him out of the car, then again twice in a police cell. "I was blue and swelled up about two inch 'cause the Taser guy was not just Tasering me, he was ramming that Taser like a baseball bat," said Quesnel, now 47.

He complained of chest pains and asked for a doctor or an ambulance. An officer thought he was feigning distress to get an early release. Eight hours later, he was taken to hospital where doctors confirmed he had suffered a heart attack.

Dr. Paul Dorian, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, says officers need to assume they may hurt someone when they use the Taser and treat all injuries seriously.

Murray Mollard of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association said Tasers, which the RCMP considers an intermediate means of force -- along with pepper spray and the baton -- should be closer to a firearm on the force scale.

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