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Monday, July 14, 2008

Editorial: Moratorium still needed

July 14, 2008
The Chronicle Herald - Halifax, Nova Scotia

LET’S consider what the ministerial review panel on police Taser use in Nova Scotia – which last week advised the government against a moratorium on the stun guns – says it didn’t know.

The review panel agreed the science on the health impact of the devices is "still evolving." They acknowledged not enough is known about the agitated mental and physical state known as excited delirium and its possible role in Taser-related deaths. Finally, they admitted they could not study just how Tasers have been used by police officers in Nova Scotia because no such database exists.

Because of that deficiency, "it was not possible for the panel to conclude whether or not overall CED (conducted energy device) use in Nova Scotia is appropriate," the final report stated. Nor was it possible to say what proportion of police use of Tasers was inappropriate.

Those are remarkable statements from a report that defends Tasers’ continued use.

Because the hodgepodge of training and policy associated with the Taser varies so much between police forces, the panel sensibly recommended a new provincial standard be implemented. Unfortunately, the panel said, such a standard should only be set after reviewing the usage data, which has yet to be collected. In the interim, the panel advised not a moratorium but a stricter threshold before Tasers are used – cases where police face "violent or aggressive resistance or active threat to the law enforcement officer, the subject or the public."

The problem, however, is that this solution gives the public little reason to be less worried about police Taser misuse right now. Police officials have already said the new rules are not that different from what’s now in place, yet the public has been horrified to see incidents, for example, in which a mentally ill individual – who later died – and a teenage girl in her own bedroom have been Tasered. Since the report acknowledges police officers have been trained unevenly (or inadequately, in situations involving excited delirium or mental health), why not holster the weapons until all the needed training and a proper standard usage policy are in place?

The panel’s otherwise sound advice – including establishing civilian oversight of Taser use and having experts monitor the latest research and technology – was wisely accepted by Justice Minister Cecil Clarke.

We still favour a moratorium on police use of Tasers until the devices can be more extensively studied and all officers properly trained. If not holstered, the public at the very least expects police to sharply curtail, if not eliminate, all incidents of inappropriate Taser use.

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