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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Tasers: More questions than answers

June 1, 2008
Michele Henry, Toronto Star

Jerry Knight may not have left police any choice but to Taser him that tepid July morning on the floor of a Brampton motel. But within minutes of arching his back to absorb the white-hot sting of 50,000 volts, he was dying.

His heart stopped beating just 26 minutes after he burst into the tiny foyer of the White Knight Motel. He'd been punching walls, trying to vault the front desk. The clerk was cowering in a corner.

Knight, 29, a trained boxer on the verge of a comeback, attacked around 20 officers with fists and teeth, sending two to hospital, before he was finally brought under control with the help of one – possibly more – blast from a Taser.

Still anguished four years later, his mother Zoe Knight and 12-year-old daughter Tyeonna Wade, need closure, the family's lawyer Ron Ellis says. "They want to know why he died," he says. "They don't know if it's the Taser or not; they just want to know what happened."

Zoe and Wade will start getting answers to that question Tuesday when a coroner's inquest examines the circumstances surrounding his death on July 17, 2004.

More importantly, this inquest, the first of its kind in the GTA, will explore the issue of Tasers at a time when Toronto police are pushing to have them included among the waist-borne armaments of close to 5,510 officers.

Tasers have already burned a scar on the nation's psyche after an amateur video caught police firing the weapon's metal darts into Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski's chest last October. He died minutes later in the Vancouver airport.

A British Columbia public inquiry is in the midst of examining many of the issues a Brampton jury will consider, including whether the benefits of allowing police to carry Tasers outweigh the risks to a public who might face them.

Bearing down on the Ontario inquest jury will also be the weight of the police. They aim to change a provincial statute that only allows Emergency Task Force officers and a handful of frontline sergeants to carry an electro-shock weapon.

Unfortunately, there is little conclusive scientific evidence available about the physical dangers of the weapon. There are only about 120 studies across the globe and more than 20 per cent have been funded by Taser International, the world's largest manufacturer of the device.

And since ethical complications prohibit scientists from jolting humans with current, most research is conducted in controlled settings that are nothing like crime scenes. Or, on pigs, our distant, thicker-skinned, stouter, four-legged cousin.

This may be why Tasers have only been linked to seven deaths in Ontario between 2004 and 2007, not blamed for them. Critics seize on this failure to prove a direct cause and effect. They say it's what precipitates a dangerous myth that the device is non-lethal.

"It doesn't leave a hole like a bullet," one critic says. "But there's no doubt it can kill."

Dr. Paul Dorian, a cardiologist at St. Michael's Hospital and the author of the most recent Taser study, would never say it's impossible to meet a deadly fate at the end of a Tom A Swift Electric Rifle (Taser).

But it's rare.

According to his research, an analysis of the existing literature coupled with his own observations and study, the odds of a "death by Taser" are the same as dying from, say, living next to power lines, getting breast implants, or drinking from a bisphenol-leaching plastic water bottle.

"It's unlikely," he says, acknowledging these concerns are real and should be taken seriously once they are put into perspective. "But never say never."

It would take a confluence of factors, Dorian says, for a Taser to force a victim's heart into fatal contractions that outlast the Taser's jolt. Pre-existing heart damage is a must, he says. So is a surge of adrenaline through a victim's blood, which could be caused by drugs, such as the cocaine found in Knight's blood, alcohol, agitation, or the stress of facing police and the crackling end of a live Taser.

To turn deadly, officers must shoot at close enough range for the weapon's two metal darts, barbed like fishhooks, to land next to, or right on, each of the victim's nipples, where the electricity from the Taser is most likely to disrupt normal pulses in the heart.

"They have to penetrate the skin," Dorian says. "And the charge has to be sufficiently prolonged."And if the Taser is to blame for a death, the victim would not hang on for a few hours, Dorian says. He would be dead within minutes, like Dziekanski.

[Hmmm - not so fast ... see 15 second time limit?]

Proponents claim the weapon is "safe" because despite the high voltage, Tasers have very low amperage, which reduces the total power flowing through a victim to a miniscule amount. Without that punch from higher amps, 50,000 volts will only make surface muscles contract, they say, leaving the ones deeper inside – the heart and the diaphragm – free from disruption.

Despite the odds, critics say, even one death is too many.

But aside from getting killed, it's the peripheral dangers of giving cops a weapon, the strength and consequence of which are largely unknown, that's a greater cause of concern.

Injuries, such as burns, bruises from dropping like a stone after being hit, and taking a dart to the eye, are common. Some critics argue Tasers are counterproductive, making subjects angrier and more willing to fight back.

But it's the Taser's high potential for misuse that makes detractors most antsy.

They fear officers will use them to control crowds and punish perpetrators for bad behaviour – in effect, use a jolt in lieu of communication and reason.

The problems, they say, start in Ontario's Use of Force Model, which dictates officers can draw the electric rifle if a subject becomes assaultive. Loosely defined, that is when someone tries to or becomes combative, either by gestures or aggressive body language, and leads their target to believe they're capable of doing harm.

While it's contained on a narrow, shaded area of the model, critics argue the definition is too broad, giving officers dangerous freedom of interpretation. That's how the 454 Toronto police who have a Taser deployed them 404 times last year in 368 incidents, charges lawyer, scientist and Taser critic Peter Rosenthal.

"They use them too liberally," he says. "It's a very painful, unpleasant thing."

Toronto police Chief Bill Blair is a wholehearted supporter of the device for one simple reason.

"It's an alternative to a fist fight," he says.

"In its simplest form, that's exactly what the Taser is."

In addition to self-defence, it's an option for police trying to stop someone from harming themselves without the officers risking their own lives. It proved gold in that capacity earlier this year, when a jolt of electricity momentarily incapacitated a Brampton man, who was slicing his wrists and throat. Moments earlier, he had fatally stabbed a husband and wife in a strip mall parking lot.

Blair is pushing the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to authorize wider use of the pug-nosed weapons. And he's already got a few aces in the hole.

Several shooting inquests have recommended Tasers over the lethal alternative.

That was the result of Ontario's first Taser inquest, which examined the May 2004 death of Peter Lamonday.

He died 50 minutes after being stung three times in a London, Ont. parking lot.

Ruling a shock would have killed him within minutes, the jury recommended the ministry take "whatever steps are necessary to ensure all front-line police officers are authorized to carry a Taser."

Toronto police say they aren't taking these recommendations lightly. Like every tool in their "use of force" arsenal – people die if they're cuffed incorrectly, Blair notes – Tasers come with risks.

But the chief says officers are trained to be accountable each time they curl their hand around any kind of weapon. They must be able to explain their decision before judge or a jury.

"In the hands of properly trained officers," Blair says, "Tasers can save lives."

So why is Jerry Knight dead?

A Special Investigations Unit report lists the cause of death as restraint asphyxia with cocaine-related excited delirium – not influenced by a Taser – but the final answer will come from the jury.

Even though Ellis has been critical of the process and wrote "numerous" letters to the coroner's office asking that the matter be heard in a timely manner, it's taken four years to get Knight's inquest to court.

Ontario's chief coroner, Dr. Bonita Porter, says a backlog is to blame for the time lag. But Ellis says a date was set about two months after he sent one last letter noting memories will fade and evidence will be lost or forgotten if it doesn't go before a jury soon.

Whatever the outcome, Dorian says, research shows Tasers are a potential health hazard, no matter what the odds against them causing someone's death.

While everyone is trying to figure out if they kill, or if they're safe, he says, it would be wrong to continue using them without making any changes – or at least trying to minimize the risk.

What about not shooting at someone's chest? he offers. Or, reconfiguring the device?

"There's a lot of possibilities, but so far none have been discussed," he says. "Nothing in the world is safe. But we haven't taken this as seriously as we should."


On a recent Friday morning, a group of officers crowded into a lecture hall at the Toronto police college, to kick off a mandatory refresher course on crisis resolution with a workshop on Tasers. Leading the charge was Staff Sgt. Tom Sharkey, Toronto police defensive tactics trainer, who laid down the basics:

Never in a meth lab – it may ignite a fire.
Never on a child, a pregnant woman or the elderly.
Not on the face or neck.
Never on the edge of stairs, a cliff or when someone's holding a weapon to themselves, because subjects can drop like a stone when darts land in their skin.
Never when a perpetrator's wielding a more powerful weapon or when a target is behind the wheel of a moving car.
Only when a subject is "assaultive."

In other words, says Sharkey, "when someone is subdued and under control – in handcuffs – we do not use the Taser. That should be common sense."

He urges every officer to "document, document, document," and to picture themselves on the witness stand in two years. They'll have only their notes to hide behind when they're forced to stammer out an explanation.

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