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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Editorial: Don’t taser the patients

September 25, 2008
The Chronicle Herald

IN JULY, Nova Scotia Justice Minister Cecil Clarke said this province was "poised to be a world leader in the safe and prudent use" of Tasers by law enforcement officers.

On Tuesday, Mr. Clarke said he had no problem with the recent, controversial actions of Amherst police, who Tasered a local diabetic – disoriented and combative due to extremely low blood sugar – after being called to assist with an emergency medical situation at the man’s home.

It’s likely safe to say the world will not be looking to Nova Scotia for leadership on this issue anytime soon.

Mr. Clarke might have been more "prudent," to use his earlier language, if he had awaited the results of an internal Amherst police review of the Sept. 14 incident before exonerating the officers.

It might also have been wise for Mr. Clarke to consider that spokespeople for Emergency Health Services – who had asked for assistance in dealing with an unco-operative patient – have said they would never advise Tasering a diabetic in that situation. In fact, EHS spokesman Paul Maynard said police never asked paramedics at the scene whether using the Taser would be helpful. He said once paramedics realized police intended to use the Taser, the officers ignored their verbal attempts to prevent the weapon from being fired. All of this took place in a matter of seconds, Mr. Maynard said.

The justice minister’s July comments came as he accepted all the recommendations of a ministerial review on Taser use in Nova Scotia, a review which said an absence of usage data made it impossible to say if the weapon was being used in an appropriate way. At that time, Mr. Clarke outlined strict rules for police Taser use, although he, as did the review, rejected calls for a moratorium.

We believed then, and maintain now, that was a mistake. Given public lack of confidence in police Taser use, after a series of highly publicized misuses of the stun gun across the country – including the deaths of some of those Tasered – and the lack of clear standards in Nova Scotia, the prudent course would have been to holster the weapon for the time being.

It’s frankly appalling that Amherst police, called to assist in a medical emergency, not at a crime scene, would consider firing a weapon at the person whose health is in distress.

Diabetics whose blood sugar reaches dangerously low levels often become disoriented and combative. To argue, as some who defend the police have, that the man could not be controlled by several officers and therefore posed a danger to himself and others is to suggest medical staff don’t have alternate ways to deal with such unco-operative patients. On the contrary. Paramedics, nurses and other health professionals have handled similar situations for years. And none, to our knowledge, has ever had to reach for a Taser.

Which is what happened. After realizing setting up an IV wouldn’t be possible in the circumstances, the paramedics gave the patient an injection of glucose, which calmed the man almost immediately.

EHS officials rightly say they plan to set up a protocol with police forces concerning Taser use in medical calls. How about "don’t Taser the patients"?

In the meantime, police who are called to help in medical situations should look to the trained health care experts on the scene to lead on how best they can be of assistance.

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