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Friday, October 31, 2008

Officials defend Tasering

October 31, 2008
By JIM MACDONALD The Canadian Press

EDMONTON — Alberta’s premier and solicitor general are downplaying the role a stun gun may have played in the death of an Edmonton man who was zapped twice by police.

Trevor Grimolfson died after he was confronted by police armed with Tasers as he ran amok in an Edmonton pawn shop Wednesday.

His death is being investigated by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, an independent organization that reviews fatalities involving police forces in Alberta. But Grimolfson’s family is already questioning the use of a stun gun on him.

Solicitor General Fred Lindsay said Thursday there’s no proof Tasers have caused any deaths. He said there’s plenty of evidence, however, to suggest that they have prevented people from being killed.

"What I will say is the Taser is an effective tool and it’s an alternate tool to lethal force," said Lindsay. "In over 2,000 cases where it’s been used in this country, it’s actually saved people’s lives."

More than 20 people have died in Canada after being stunned by Tasers.

The U.S. company that makes the devices points out they have never been directly blamed for a death. Steve Tuttle, the vice-president of communications for Taser International, said the family’s assertion that the device may have played apart in Grimolfson’s death isn’t based on the facts. "Until all the facts surrounding this tragic incident are known, it’s extremely inappropriate to jump to conclusions on the cause of death," he said from the company’s offices in Scottsdale, Ariz.

There is already a long list of independent research that has verified the safety of the devices, Tuttle said. More than 130 studies have been done on Taser technology and 80 per cent of them have been independent, Tuttle said. "We have yet to see a human study come back and give us an indication that these devices are unsafe," Tuttle said.

Lindsay said a condition known as excited delirium may be responsible for the deaths rather than the Taser itself. "How many of those deaths have been confirmed to be because of the use of the Taser? I haven’t seen a lot of evidence come forward yet that confirms at the end of the investigation that it was caused by the voltage that was put into the person’s body by the Taser."

Premier Ed Stelmach noted that Lindsay himself was jolted with a Taser during a demonstration earlier this year. "This minister is standing. He got Tasered and he’s alive."

Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, a deputy editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal who has been critical of the lack of studies on conducted energy weapons, said there’s a great need to know more about the potential health effects of the devices.

Stanbrook, who is an associate professor at the University of Toronto, said it’s in the public’s interest to know whether they are potentially harmful.

"We need independent, public analysis of a robust, broad data set of all the times this has been used, by experts who are capable of doing it, so we can get an answer as to whether this device causes harm," he said.

He said such research may answer whether the devices may be contributing to in-custody deaths, especially for people who are highly agitated — either due to mental-health issues or drugs and alcohol.

"The truth is right now, we simply don’t know. We’ve got a lot of concerns, but no answers," Stanbrook said.

Stanbrook dismissed excited delirium as an explanation for such deaths, saying there’s no agreement in the medical community about whether it’s a real syndrome.

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