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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Editorial: Lethal Weapons

September 4, 2008
The Globe and Mail

Tasers can kill. This hypothesis - at once radical and glaringly obvious - has been uttered by Quebec coroner Catherine Rudel-Tessier, after examining a disturbing taser death in Montreal. It should be posted at every police station in Canada.

The gospel according to police forces across this country is that tasers do not kill. Twenty-two people in Canada have died after being tasered over the past five years, yet police insist an underlying cause - a drug overdose, say, or "excited delirium" - is virtually always to blame. People have always died sudden deaths in police custody, they say. It is nothing new.

Dr. Rudel-Tessier says otherwise. A 39-year-old man, Quilem Registre, was tasered six times in just 53 seconds by Montreal police. Each taser cycle lasted five seconds. Out of 53 seconds, he was tasered for 30. The tasering occurred on Oct. 14, 2007, which may explain why it has not become as notorious as it probably should have been. Oct. 14 was the day that Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski was fatally tasered. A bystander's video of that needless tasering went around the world, and led British Columbia to set up two separate inquiries.

Why was Mr. Registre tasered? He had been driving erratically, as if intoxicated (some cocaine and alcohol was found in his system). He acted aggressively. But the coroner said she could not determine why police felt the taser was the best option in the circumstances, and why they fired so many times. The two police officers involved spoke only through their written incidence reports. They did not speak directly to Dr. Rudel-Tessier. They did not answer her questions. Mr. Registre died four days after being tasered.

Here is what Dr. Rudel-Tessier said: "Even if the use of the taser by the police cannot be considered to be the medical cause of death, it is apparent that, considering he was in an agitated and intoxicated state, receiving several electrical discharges possibly contributed to his death."

And: "I think that until we have serious studies on intoxicated or sick persons that are conclusive, the taser should also be considered as a weapon that can lead to death."

The police might retort that she is not definitive. But she has it exactly right. There are limited data on the effects of taser use on people who are on drugs, mentally ill or hysterical. It is therefore difficult to point with any certainty directly to the taser. But the evidence in the growing number of fatalities linked to taser use points to fatal risks, either directly or as a link in a chain of events causing death. In the face of that plausible evidence, the onus is on police to limit their taser use to high-risk situations; that is, situations where the risk of bodily harm, whether to the police or anyone else, is commensurate with the possibly fatal risks of taser use.

On the assumption that tasers do not kill, the wildly growing use of the electric stun gun rests. Because they assume the weapon does not kill, police across Canada feel free to use it in situations in which there is no serious threat of bodily harm. The Montreal police had other options with Mr. Registre; the coroner suggested they could have called an ambulance and treated his case as a medical problem. There was no immediate, deadly threat.

The police assumption about taser safety is wrong. The working assumption should now be that tasers can kill.

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