July 24, 2008
Winnipeg Free Press
Winnipeg police say the 17-year-old youth who died Tuesday after being stunned by an officer's Taser gun was suspected of having stolen property and refused police warnings to drop the knife he pulled out. These barest of details offer a slim explanation amid rising public distrust of the "non-lethal" Taser and shaken faith in the Winnipeg Police Service.
The death is the first in Winnipeg connected to police use of Tasers, a controversial weapon of law enforcement -- more than 20 people in Canada have died after being hit with the 50,000 volts it releases. Police across Canada have defended its safety, noting it can quickly incapacitate a person and defuse a volatile situation without loss of life or serious injury. That was sorely tested by the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski last fall. It triggered an outcry and broad concern that the manufacturer's assurance the weapon cannot interfere with the heart was false. A study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal indicated that experiments on pigs suggest that the heart muscle can be affected.
Winnipeg Police are saying little about the Taser incident, which is being investigated as per routine by the department's homicide branch. An autopsy on the Tasered man and a review of the homicide investigation by an outside police agency will fill in some of the blanks and scrutinize the Winnipeg Police Service's handling of the back-alley incident. These are all necessary checks, but it is unlikely Winnipeggers will get good answers until an inquest is held sometime in the future. The delay damages the interests of transparency and makes for poor accountability.
The RCMP's complaints commissioner found in the wake of Mr. Dziekanski's death that police comfort with Tasers led them to stray outside the policy on its use. Paul Kennedy recommended that the RCMP return to the original policy to use it on combative individuals and that Tasers not be used against those exhibiting signs of "excited delirium," a condition often seen in cocaine users. Winnipeg's policy allows for the use of the Taser on those in such a state, as it is regarded as a quick way to safely restrain those whose energy is hard to subdue.
Police data do not show that Winnipeg police are using the Tasers with greater frequency. Last year, Tasers were used either coercively (shown, but not fired) or to stun an individual 173 times, while by mid-2008, they had been used 63 times.
The statistics will be cold comfort to relatives of the teenager. They are unlikely to reassure Winnipeggers who are struggling to maintain trust in the department amid an inquiry into the death of a woman killed by an off-duty officer who drove into her vehicle after a night of drinking with colleagues. Winnipeg police do not, by practice, publicly release the reports of third-party investigators who review internal investigations. There is no good reason for this. Police Chief Keith McCaskill should recognize that the prevailing public interest and mood demand that the report be released as soon as possible.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Thursday, July 24, 2008
July 24, 2008