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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

EDITORIAL: TASERS AT A COMMONS COMMITTEE - Dangerous weapon of convenience

June 11, 2008
Editorial, Globe and Mail

To argue that tasers save lives by preventing gun use by police is to accept a false premise, yet that is the argument that the House of Commons public safety committee is reportedly preparing to make to Canadians. Tasers are not used as an alternative to guns, as the committee well knows.

Yet the committee, faced with an opportunity to supply national leadership, appears to lack the spine to try to curb out-of-control taser use. It will instead call for a mere tweak to RCMP usage guidelines - a tweak rejected once by the RCMP commissioner.

The use of tasers as a replacement for guns is the very foundation of public support. Even some politicians responsible for approving them thought that was how they would be used. They were wrong.

All this became clear at the committee's Feb. 25 hearing. "I was the attorney-general in B.C. when this device was first introduced in Victoria through a pilot project," said Ujjal Dosanjh, a member of the committee. "I was given the impression that it would be used sparingly, that it would be a second-last resort, which means if under normal circumstances you would draw a gun to deal with some serious issues, this would take the place of some of those instances of drawing guns."

RCMP Sergeant Richard Groulx told him he'd misunderstood. "The conducted energy weapon for the RCMP has never been a replacement to lethal force." This is stunning. Legislators put a weapon in the hands of police without understanding its use.

This weapon can hardly be said to be used sparingly. The RCMP now use it 1,400 times a year, or more than 100 times a month. They used it on Frank Lasser, an 82-year-old man in a hospital bed clutching a penknife. They used it, with fatal consequences, on Robert Dziekanski, a distressed but not dangerous Polish immigrant at Vancouver's airport. It has become a weapon of convenience.

Sgt. Groulx went on to explain why it is not a replacement for guns. "There's nothing sure about the deployment of a conducted energy weapon, especially when a situation is dynamic. When it's dynamic, quite often the deployment will fail which puts the officer at risk. . . . assume a probe missed its point of impact, or is embedded in loose clothing. . . . There is no effect so the client can close that distance in a very short period of time with a knife or a baseball bat. . . ."

The taser can be a useful tool. A mentally ill person who is threatening suicide - say, by holding a knife to his throat, or standing threatening to jump in front of a train - can be quickly controlled. In that sense, the taser can save lives.

Police also say it saves lives by stopping dangerous situations from escalating. This may be true in some cases, but it also gives licence to police to use their tasers in low-level situations.

The committee is reportedly ready to urge that the RCMP use its stun gun on "combative" people rather than "resistant" ones, as currently permitted. "Combative" is little improvement. The RCMP could have described the 82-year-old Mr. Lasser in his hospital bed or the exhausted, befuddled Mr. Dziekanski as combative.

Taser use is becoming more frequent and widespread, and police forces have been unwilling to take a fresh look at the risks involved in the use of this weapon. The public is beginning to take that new look; yesterday, Taser International Inc. lost a product-liability suit in California in the heart-attack death of a young man tasered several times by police. (The police were cleared, because they hadn't been told of the risks.)

Legislators, now that they understand how tasers are actually used, need to reassert control over this weapon by setting the threshold for use at a much higher level: to prevent grievous physical harm, or death.

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