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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

EDITORIAL: Time to stun taser use

November 4, 2008
Calgary Herald

An immediate moratorium on the use of Taser stun guns would be an appropriate response to the latest death -- this time in Calgary. The incident also highlights the need for national standards to be developed, based on independent research -- not that funded by Taser International, the company that makes the weapons.

Calgary police used a Taser on an agitated man during his arrest in an apparent break and enter on the weekend. He died Monday in hospital.

Many questions remain, including whether or not the Taser deployed even worked. Still, in the face of increasing fatalities, any insistence from police and authorities that no evidence exists proving the weapons are a danger, loses credibility.

People are dead who might otherwise be alive had their condition been recognized as one requiring medical attention, not an electric shock. The condition is commonly referred to by police and other experts as "excited delirium." There's no consensus among experts on what effect a jolt of up to 50,000 volts has on suspects in this agitated state.

Tasers may not be directly linked to deaths, but they are certainly indirectly associated with at least 22 fatalities in Canada, alone. In North America, that number jumps to 300.

The most controversial death was caught on video last year, when 40-year-old Robert Dziekanski died at the Vancouver International Airport after being Tasered twice by RCMP.

The latest two fatalities occurred within a week of each other, both in Alberta. Last week, Edmonton police used a stun gun to subdue a man on a rampage in a pawn shop. He died a day later.

The use of Tasers by North American police forces is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that still has many unknowns in practice, if not in theory. Victoria was the first Canadian jurisdiction to adopt the weapons in 1999, but their use has exploded in the past four years, with some 2,000 to 3,000 weapons now available to officers in Canada.

Tasers are supposed to be an effective, last-resort alternative to lethal force. They are supposed to save lives, not end them. Yet, a media review of 563 Taser incidents reported by the RCMP between 2002 and 2005 revealed a disturbing pattern of use by the Mounties. The high-powered weapons were used as a quick means to subdue low-risk suspects or prisoners.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal believes more independent study of potential health risks is needed. A recent editorial noted most of the research is funded by the weapon's maker, Taser International.

Tasers may well be a better alternative to firearms, but they are only as good as the training and protocols governing how police officers use them.

The answer lies in part with the politicians, who should be pushing for a coherent national policy, instead of blindly defending their use until evidence proves otherwise.

An unbiased, national review of police-confrontation deaths before and after Tasers were introduced needs to be conducted. And until it's proven beyond doubt that Tasers had nothing to do with the 22 deaths, the use of such force should be suspended.

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