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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Death stirs debate on taser's pros and cons - Ontario mom up in arms against use of stun gun

November 4, 2008
Valerie Fortney, Calgary Herald

Four years ago, Patti Gillman didn't even know what a Taser was. But all that changed when her only sibling, Robert Bagnell, died after being Tasered twice by Vancouver police on June 23, 2004.

"He was 136 pounds, and 13 police officers apparently couldn't restrain him," says Bagnell of her brother, who police initially told her had died of acute cocaine intoxication and psychosis. A neighbour in Bagnell's apartment called 911 for an ambulance after he collapsed in a communal bathroom.

"We didn't even find out police had used a Taser on him until we saw Vancouver police announce it on the TV news a month later."

That tragedy has transformed the Ontario mother of two into a civilian crusader against the pistol-like device capable of discharging 50,000 volts of electricity.

In the wake of a 2007 inquiry that made no recommendations after hearing 10 days of testimony about her brother's death, Gillman started up her website, truthnottasers.blogspot.com, which lists the names of the 20 Canadians and more than 200 Americans who have died after being Tasered; it also includes news articles on Tasers from across North America and advocates for the likes of the mother of Robert Dziekanski, whose death after being Tasered at Vancouver International Airport by RCMP officers was videotaped by a bystander and broadcast around the world.

"Zofia just found out it will be delayed again," says Gillman of the inquest into Dziekanski's death. "It is just devastating for her, to have to wait so long."

This past April, Gillman appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security to give her views on the device described by Alberta Solicitor General Fred Lindsay as "an alternate tool to lethal force."

So it's no surprise Gillman was well acquainted early Monday with the case of 30-year-old Gordon Bowe, who died after being Tasered on the weekend by Calgary Police. At press time, the investigation into the incident had yet to confirm if the Taser made contact with Bowe.

"I've been worrying all weekend he might not make it," says Gillman. "I can't believe you have two dead Albertans in less than one week."

Gillman, who has also been in touch with the family of Edmontonian Trevor Grimolfson, who died Oct. 29 after being Tasered, confesses to being a first-time agitator.

"I've never done anything like this before," she says of her new role as an outspoken opponent of Taser use by police.

"But when Bob died, I knew I had to do something about it."

While the battle rages on over the use of Tasers, Gillman says a big part of her mission is to remind people of the very human stories behind the headlines.

"We're not talking about hardened criminals in most of these cases," she says, not mincing words when it comes to her view of the end result for some. "But they're being summarily executed, without benefit of judge or jury."

Her own brother, she admits, had his problems, including some minor brushes with the law.

"But he was a nice guy, artistic, funny and wouldn't hurt a fly," she says. "Every time police use Tasers, it's Russian Roulette. It's sad for the victims and it's sad for the police, too."

Her mom, Riki, talks about the son she remembers as a good-humoured wanderer who was "living his dream" in Vancouver.

"These are not bad people, these are people in crisis," she says. "And the end result is horrifying."

Every time there is news about someone dying after being Tasered, says Gillman, there is a family left broken hearted and wondering why.

Every time they hear about another incident, Gillman says she and her family relive their own nightmare.

"I couldn't even watch the video of Robert Dziekanski, it was like witnessing my brother's death."

Still, there are many who disagree with Gillman, from government officials to judges to police associations, most of whom argue that not only has it not been proven Tasers cause death, but they protect police in volatile situations. Taser International, the U.S. company that makes the device, says they have never been directly blamed for a death.

Such opposition and expert opinion, though, is unlikely to deter people like Gillman, who see themselves as voices for those who have been silenced forever.

"I was living a very normal life before all this happened," she says at the end of our conversation. "Then the Taser entered it -- and nothing will ever be the same."

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