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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Police, experts grapple over Taser guidelines following teen's death

July 25, 2008
Jordana Huber, Canwest News Service

TORONTO - Police say Michael Langan was armed, dangerous and ignoring orders to drop his knife moments before he was Tasered in a Winnipeg back alley.

The car-theft suspect became the latest Canadian, and the youngest according to Amnesty International, to die in a Taser-related incident.

The subsequent controversy has thrust police in the Manitoba capital into the spotlight of the ongoing debate about Taser safety, and has provided more ammunition for opponents of the "electronic control device" who have long called on law-enforcement agencies to suspend its use.

Frank Addario is president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, which has called for a moratorium on the use of the weapon pending an inquiry into its safety He said officer training lacks uniformity and follow-up procedures are either ineffective or incomplete - making it difficult to determine whether police are strictly limiting Tasers to situations where subjects pose a probable threat of serious injury to themselves or to others.

"This is not about whether one supports the police or whether one empathizes with their abilities in managing unruly suspects," Addario said. "This is about whether the weapon, as designed, is delivering what it promised, and if it is not, police forces in Canada ought to stop using it until better training can occur or the weapon can be modified."

Tasers are billed by police forces and the device's manufacturer as an effective weapon that can save lives and reduce injury to officers and suspects.

Critics warn there is no medical consensus on their safety and say public confidence in Tasers as a "non-lethal" use of force is increasingly being eroded in the wake of more than 20 deaths in Canada since 2003 linked to - though not blamed on - the conductive energy weapon.

Amid the public outcry following the release of a video of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant who was Tasered in October, 2007 at Vancouver International Airport by the RCMP, a report by the Mounties public complaints commission chairman Paul Kennedy urged the RCMP to reign in their use of Tasers.

He said it appeared Tasers were being deployed by RCMP more often and much earlier in encounters with suspects than originally intended when they were adopted. Still, the extent of "usage creep" was impossible to determine because the Mounties had engaged in "systematic under-reporting."

According to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act by Canwest News Service, the overall use of Tasers by the RCMP soared to 1,119 incidents in 2006 and 1,414 in 2007, compared with only 597 incidents in 2005.

Municipal police forces across the country largely classify Tasers as "intermediate weapons" and consider them an appropriate option for subjects "actively resistant" towards an officer, Kennedy said in his report.

Still, he noted there remain "subtle but significant differences" in operational policies surrounding their use.

Earlier this month, Nova Scotia placed interim restrictions limiting Tasers to "situations of violent or aggressive resistance or active threat that may cause serious injury," following the release of a report into the death of a 45-year-old man who passed away hours after officers deployed a Taser.

Ontario only allows tactical officers or front-line supervisors to carry Tasers, while they are a standard tool of front-line police in Winnipeg, Calgary, and in Edmonton.

Dziekanski's death prompted the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary to hold off on plans to expand their use of Tasers. The Saskatchewan Police Commission announced Friday it won't authorize the use of the devices by members of the province's 14 municipal and First Nation police services. However, SWAT team members will continue to be authorized to use them.

Addario said the varying protocols for Taser deployment need to be harmonized across the country so all police forces are "singing from the same songbook" when it comes to the circumstances under which Tasers should be used.

A briefing note reviewing current medical research and literature on Tasers prepared for the Canadian Association of Police Boards in March suggested deaths or injuries that occur proximal to the use of the Taser will continue to prompt "flare ups" from the public that likely will result in ongoing pressure to define more precisely when a Taser should and should not be deployed.

The report added policies dictating when officers can deploy a Taser could be detrimental to good policing and counter-productive because use of force is contingent on a mix of circumstances at any scene.

There is no "black and white" answer, said RCMP Const. Donald Perrett. He monitors and compiles daily reports of Taser use by officers across the country.

"Police work is dynamic," Perrett said. "It is difficult to say when and how, because two police officers can look at the exact same situation and will both respond differently."

In May, a study by researchers published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal said despite research suggesting Tasers don't hurt internal organs such as the heart, "it is inappropriate to conclude stun-gun discharges cannot lead to adverse cardiac consequences in all real-world settings."

Accompanying the research was an editorial by CMAJ deputy editor Dr. Matthew Stanbrook who said Taser safety has become a public health issue as law-enforcement officials preach the benefits of deploying the weapon when dealing with subjects suffering "excited delirium."

The highly controversial diagnosis is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders but has increasingly been listed by coroners as a cause of death in people restrained by police during an altercation - regardless of whether a Taser was used.

Associated with individuals who have taken drugs, alcohol or who have a mental illness, symptoms can include agitation and super-human strength and can lead to sudden death, some researchers suggest.

Many police trainers teach officers excited delirium is a medical emergency and the sooner someone is taken into care, the better off they will be.

It's a recommendation endorsed by several coroner's juries - most recently by a panel in Ontario looking into the death of amateur boxer Jerry Knight, who fought more than 20 officers before being subdued during an incident in a motel lobby in 2004.

Mike Webster, a police psychologist, said "well-meaning" law-enforcement officials have been "brainwashed" by the device's manufacturer to justify "ridiculously and inappropriate" use of the weapon for a disorder that doesn't exist.

"Police have been indoctrinated into believing in this fictitious disorder - this excited delirium - and it is presented as a rational for the use of the weapon," said Webster who testified at public inquiry in B.C. probing Tasers.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg Police Chief Keith McCaskill warned this week it is far too early to pass judgment on the circumstances surrounding Langan's death.

But he said police in the city are trained "very clearly" on how to respond to situations such as the one two patrol officers were confronted with on Tuesday.

The teenager was the first person to die in Manitoba after being subdued by a police stun gun.

Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand and Langan's mother, Sharon Shymko, were scheduled to meet McCaskill Friday afternoon to discuss their concerns that the teen, who is Metis, was a victim of racial profiling by police.

At a hastily organized news conference Friday, Chartrand and Shymko expressed displeasure at media coverage of Langan's lifestyle before his death, based on interviews with the boy's father, and revelations in the Winnipeg Free Press that the teen had four citations under the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act.

"He had a future . . . he had dreams," said Shymko, who said she was ill after reading some of the news accounts.

A wake and funeral is planned for the teen early next week in Winnipeg, and reporters have been asked to stay away.

Langan had been staying with his father in a rooming house in the weeks before his death, after moving back to the city from Kelowna, B.C., where he'd been living with his mother since April.

The boy had an erratic upbringing, mostly in Winnipeg.

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