You may have arrived here via a direct link to a specific post. To see the most recent posts, click HERE.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Editorial: When to zap

September 15, 2008
National Post

Canadians shouldn't have had to wait for an Access to Information Request to drag an RCMP investigation on the force's use of Tasers into the public eye. The Mounties should have released the report themselves, without prompting, when they received it in June. And they should make public now the 18 pages they have censored, including the investigators' recommendations on when and how Tasers should be used.

It has been nearly a year since Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died after being Tasered while in custody at Vancouver International Airport. Amateur video of the incident -- including what appears to be officers' hasty resort to use of the "conducted energy weapons" that deliver a high-voltage charge to suspects -- shocked and outraged Canadians.

Since Mr. Dziekanski's death, at least five other Canadians in police custody have died after being Tasered. And over the years, there have been a total of 22 deaths following Taserings. No autopsy or public inquiry has yet ruled the weapons a direct cause of death in any incident, but many Canadians are worried that the devices may be more dangerous than police and their manufacturer, Taser International, allow. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the Saskatchewan Police Commission have both suspended use of Tasers until further study of their lethality can be concluded.

We are not opposed to Tasersuse by police. Like chokeholds, batons and firearms, they have their place in the menu of police responses to violent or agitated prisoners and suspects. But we do believe the risks of using them must be fully appreciated so officers do not discharge them at the wrong time or against especially vulnerable individuals.

That is why the RCMP report -- brought to light by a Toronto Star Access to Information Request -- should have been made public right away: It red-flags the lack of independent research conducted by the force before its widespread adoption of the devices. Too many of the 170 Canadian police services that use Tasers rely almost entirely on Taser International's claims about their safety.

According to the report, prepared for RCMP Commissioner William Elliott and carried out by independent experts, there has been "an over-reliance on research carried out by [stun gun] manufacturers … or sponsored by the manufacturers. While manufacturers understandably need to provide (and are entitled to do so) information to potential customers or clients as part of their marketing and promotion efforts, the policing community needs to be assiduous in assessing the manufacturer's information."

Mounties weren't assiduous enough.

Many deaths following a Tasering are attributed to a condition known as "excited delirium." It has been suggested that Mr. Dziekanski's case fell into this category. While being restrained, the victim acts wildly, is often violent, sweats profusely, exhibits abnormal strength and seems insensitive to pain. His heart races and eventually stops beating.

The RCMP report acknowledges that emergency room staff sometimes list excited delirium as a cause of death, but it emphasizes that it is not a recognized medical diagnosis and that there is much controversy in the medical community still about whether it should be cited as a legitimate medical state. When officers report a suspected case of excited delirium, the report concluded, they are engaging in nothing short of "folk knowledge."

Until the Mounties can conduct their own study into the effects of Tasers on those they are arresting -- as the report recommends they do -- use of the devices should be restricted to experienced officers, and new guidelines should be issued for their use. We do not presuppose to know what those guidelines should say, but it seems a good bet that Taser use against handcuffed suspects or those being held to the floor by officers should be examined.

It's a pity the Mounties chose not to release this information themselves. Doing so would have helped repair their damaged reputation. But now that the report is public, the force can help rebuild Canadians' faith in it by limiting officers' Taser use until the force can decide for itself just what constitutes appropriate use.

No comments: