July 31, 2008
Randy Burton, The StarPhoenix
At last, someone in a position of authority within law enforcement has had the gumption to question conventional wisdom on Tasers. While other jurisdictions continue to argue that there is no conclusive evidence they are dangerous, this province has decided otherwise.
The decision by the Saskatchewan Police Commission that it will not authorize municipal police forces to use Tasers, at least for now, is a bold stand. Its decision is all the more courageous given that it reversed a previous approval of the electronic control devices.
Institutions at any level are generally reluctant to admit they may have made a mistake, but there are good reasons for the police commission to have reconsidered this issue.
At the latest count, there have been 22 people killed by Tasers in Canada, a number that suggests there is something more than just bad luck involved. The best-known case is that of Robert Dziekanski, the Polish visitor who died at the Vancouver International Airport after being hit with Tasers by local RCMP officers. Dziekanski was upset and acting out after being contained in the arrivals area of the airport for eight hours without food. When he started throwing chairs around, the police arrived and let him have it with the Tasers, killing him within minutes.
That incident has been the subject of a number of different reviews, and so far at least, none of them have come back with the conclusion that the Taser was a good idea under the circumstances.
Nor has anyone suggested it was the ideal response to the case of 17-year-old Michael Langan, the Winnipeg boy who was killed by police just last week. Langan was allegedly spotted breaking into a car and flashed a knife when he was confronted by city police. They say he refused to drop the knife after several warnings, so they hit him with one shot of the Taser, which killed him on the spot.
This incident casts a different light on various theories presented in the past as to why Tasers kill people. Clearly, Langan was not an overweight middle-aged man with a chancy heart. He was a young fellow in good physical condition, accustomed to walking at least five miles a day. According to his parents, he had no health history that would suggest he was likely to die from an electric shock.
And this is precisely the problem. No one seems to be able to accurately predict what effect the Taser will have on its victims, or where the line is between subduing a suspect and creating another law enforcement accident.
This is exactly what Saskatchewan ombudsman Kevin Fenwick concluded in recommending Tasers be kept out of provincial jails.
On the face of it, Langan was precisely the kind of person the Taser was designed to deal with. Police were facing an unpredictable and potentially violent subject who clearly represented a threat to the physical safety of the officers. Yet the Taser produced exactly the outcome that it is supposed to have been designed to prevent. Langan wound up just as dead as if he'd been shot through the heart.
Obviously, there has to be a better way.
It's understandable that police would be reluctant to give up any tool that gives them an edge in dangerous situations. So it's no surprise that the Saskatchewan Association of Police Chiefs should be asking for further review of the police commission's decision.
While the police are not exactly arguing that the Taser is safe, they do say they will have to rely on other tactics if the stun gun is not available to them. "If the next step in some circumstances is the firearm, well, we know what often the result of that is," says Prince Albert police Chief Dale McFee, president of the police chief's association.
"We just want to make sure that our officers aren't second-guessing themselves and that they do have every tool readily available to them."
The problem, of course, is that police don't always regard the Taser as a weapon of last resort. Too often it's used just because it's easier than physically restraining someone, or talking someone like Langan out of doing something stupid. For example, the young man who refused to stop heckling presidential candidate John Kerry was Tased just because he was annoying.
More recently, a young man in Missouri who fell off an overpass was Tased while lying on the shoulder of the road below as a means of preventing him from running into traffic. None of these examples inspire confidence in the discretion of police.
This is precisely why we have civilian oversight of policing agencies. It should not be left strictly to the police to decide what policies and procedures are effective. Occasionally police have to be reined in when their infatuation with weaponry begins to overtake common sense.
This is one of those times.
Until it can be proven that Tasers are not resulting in unintended deaths, they should be left on the shelf.
It may take awhile for other jurisdictions to follow suit, but the Saskatchewan Police Commission will eventually be seen as a leader on this question.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Thursday, July 31, 2008
July 31, 2008