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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Winnipeg mother questions use of taser on teenage son

July 24, 2008

Family speaks about 17-year-old's death, although police haven't released his name

A spokesman for the family of a Winnipeg teen who died after police zapped him with a stun gun are questioning whether officers used excessive force and if the boy was a victim of racial profiling.

Police and civic officials, however, have defended their use of the stun gun, saying the appropriate amount of force was used given the situation.

Police have not yet released the name of the boy who died in the Tuesday afternoon confrontation, but family members identified him as 17-year-old Michael Langan. The teen was rushed to hospital in critical condition after officers struck him with a Taser. He later died, becoming the first stun gun-related fatality since the Winnipeg Police Service began using the devices in the fall of 2006.

The encounter happened after two citizens flagged down police around 4 p.m. CT Tuesday to report seeing a thief flee, then officers tracked down someone wielding a knife several blocks away.

Langan's mother, Sharon Shymko, and her family have asked David Chartrand, the president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, to speak on their behalf as she grieves the loss of her son. Chartrand questioned whether racial profiling played a part in the encounter. "Why does it seem to be aboriginal people that seem to fall prey to this extra force against us?" he asked. "Is there a better way that could have handled a youth with a knife in his hand?"

No plans for Taser policy change

He also questioned how the police force has handled the case, saying they were notified late about the teen's death. "Police did come, and got a picture and left, and they did not verify to her until later on the next day …," Chartrand said.

In a CTV interview with the mother, she called for a moratorium on the devices, and said the officers should have just used a gun since it "basically did the same thing."

Police and civic politicians stand by their use of the weapon in the incident. "The suspect in this matter was armed with a knife and clearly refusing to comply with directions from the officers to disarm. That poses a threat to the officers, that poses a threat to other members of the public," said police spokeswoman Const. Jacqueline Chaput.

Gord Steeves, head of the city's committee on protection and community services, agreed, and said the incident is not cause for a change in policy. "It's a terrible incident, of course, there's no happy ending to a story like this," said Steeves. "But as of right now, I have no indication any policy needs to be changed, any policy wasn't followed or that any of our people make any mistakes."

Counsellors, lawyers to help family

The Manitoba Metis Federation is providing counsellors and lawyers to help the Langan family deal with the loss. "There's a lot of hurt right now. That's really, really difficult right now," said Chartrand, adding that the community is concerned about Shymko's state of mind.

It has not yet been determined whether the Taser contributed to the teen's death. Results from an autopsy are pending.

Taser use has been under scrutiny since several high-profile deaths following their use by police across Canada, including the case of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, which made international headlines. He died in the Vancouver International Airport after RCMP officers zapped him at least twice with a stun gun.

Probes into the use of Tasers were launched in the wake of his death. A probe by the RCMP watchdog, for instance, concluded that rookie officers should not be allowed to use the stun guns, and those zapped with the device should be given immediate medical attention.

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