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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Well-founded doubt

Michael Tochor, chairman of the Saskatchewan Police Commission - "the medical evidence is inconclusive"

July 29, 2008
The Globe and Mail

If there's a medal reserved for courageous police boards, the Saskatchewan Police Commission deserves it. It has stood up against police orthodoxy nearly everywhere in Canada to voice honest doubts about tasers. "There's a grave danger of them being abused," chair Michael Tochor said yesterday. He also expressed doubts about the medical science underpinning their purported safety. "The medical evidence is inconclusive."

Two years ago, the commission - the civilian body that sets policy for the province's municipal police forces - approved the taser in principle for the use of regular officers (in addition to the tactical squads with permission now). As soon as guidelines could be developed for taser use and training, the police services would be free to roll out the 50,000-volt weapons. But after numerous deaths and appalling police misuses of the electric stun guns, the commission rescinded that approval last week. While it believes the tasers may save lives when used in appropriate circumstances, it wants to see more scientific data, and think out what policy might fit, before moving ahead.

That may seem a small step, but it seems awfully large when most Canadian police are heading in the other direction. The RCMP, for instance, use the taser nearly 30 times a week, and their civilian chair, William Elliott, has refused to make even the minuscule alteration to taser guidelines recommended by an independent watchdog. (The guidelines allow for use on the "actively resistant," and the watchdog would raise that to "combative.")

How could there not be doubts? Twenty-two people have died in Canada after being tasered in the past five years, including a 17-year-old man last week in Winnipeg. One of the 22, Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, was shown on an amateur videotape to have been exhausted and distressed, but not violent; a clutch of RCMP officers tasered him within 30 seconds of confronting him last October at the Vancouver International Airport. Scientists have raised serious questions about taser safety at the Braidwood Inquiry in British Columbia.

Some day, civilian police boards and governments across Canada may admit to their own honest doubts. But the Saskatchewan Police Commission was first.

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