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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

EDITORIAL: Testing times for tasers

July 30, 2008
Editorial in the Regina Leader-Post

Editorial: The Saskatchewan Police Commission is wisely erring on the side of caution in delaying approval of general use of Tasers by municipal police forces.

It's been touted as an alternative to police guns that will save lives, but the Taser is itself under fire following a series of deaths and controversial incidents.

In particular, a bystander's video of the final moments of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died after being Tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver airport last fall, prompted a series of reviews and inquiries and persuaded the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary to suspend Taser use for all but its tactics and rescue unit.

Now, the Saskatchewan Police Commission has reversed its earlier decision to allow the province's 14 municipal and First Nations police forces to use Tasers, pending more scientific and medical information that "definitively" concludes whether or not Tasers cause deaths.

The federally regulated RCMP is exempt from the decision and has resisted calls for a moratorium on its use of Tasers. SWAT teams like Regina's will still use Tasers if necessary.

While there are many stories about Tasers being used successfully to defuse dangerous confrontations without lasting harm to the victim, there are too many opposing instances of people -- like Dziekanski -- dying after being Tasered to ignore. Indeed, on the day the Saskatchewan Police Commission made its decision last week, a 17-year-old youth suspected of theft died in Winnipeg after being Tasered.

While there is conflicting expert opinion on the medical implications of the short, intense electric shocks delivered by Tasers, there is general agreement that Tasers have sometimes been used inappropriately. For example:

- An Edmonton constable faces disciplinary charges for allegedly using his Taser on two sleeping men during a robbery investigation in a hotel;

- A Charlotte, North Carolina police officer was suspended for five days following the Taser-related death of a 17-year-old grocery store employee during a confrontation. The officer is said to have Tasered the victim twice in the chest, once for 37 seconds and a second time for five seconds -- far beyond recommended use. An autopsy concluded that the teen died from a heart attack.

- Statistics obtained under the Access to Information Act by Canwest News Service show Taser use by the RCMP growing dramatically -- 1,414 incidents in 2007 and 1,119 in 2006, compared to only 597 in 2005. B.C. led the nation in RCMP Taser use at 11.26 incidents per 100,000 people, followed by P.E.I. (11.18), Manitoba (10.83), New Brunswick (10.78), Saskatchewan (10.76) and Alberta (10.64). Ontario and Quebec have their own provincial police forces.

- "What we see is that the Taser is now being used as a substitute for the good-old traditional talking by police, or the baton or pepper spray," says former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh, a Liberal MP who sits on a parliamentary committee examining stun gun use in Canada.

- Greater Vancouver Transit Authority Police have controversially used Tasers against "non-compliant" fare evaders.

It's clearly impossible to arrive at a "one-size-fits-all" guideline for Taser use, but at a minimum more intensive training -- and far more caution -- needs to be attached to its use.

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