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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tasers in Britain - an open letter to British Home Secretary

November 29, 2008
The Globe and Mail

Open letter

To: Rt. Hon. Jacqui Smith, British Home Secretary

Re: What you should know about tasers

It has come to our attention that you intend to put 10,000 electric stun guns in the hands of front-line police officers across England and Wales. Pardon our impertinence, but have you considered removing your ubiquitous security cameras first?

Ms. Smith, the police in Canada tell themselves lies about their beloved tasers. For instance, that tasers do not kill. No amount of deaths (22 in five years in this country with some taser connection) will convince them otherwise. In September, a Quebec coroner said tasers should be deemed capable of leading to death, until more is known. Police don't believe it.

A myth: Tasers are an alternative to guns. The government official who approved the first taser use in Canada - Ujjal Dosanjh, in British Columbia - insists police told him so. (The police deny it.) Anyway, that is certainly not how they are used now. Their range is just 21 feet, and the optimal distance is 15 feet, and they don't work on anyone in thick clothing. The answer to a gun- or knife-wielding maniac 20 feet away remains the gun.

Tasers are particularly prone to overuse - the Mounties went from 597 incidents in 2005 to 1,400 times in 2007 - and, let's face it, abuse. Frank Lasser was shot in his hospital bed - he's 82, for goodness' sake - because he refused to drop his penknife. Robert Dziekanski was a 40-year-old Polish immigrant left stranded for 10 hours in an airport, unable to find his mother. Four Mounties approached and, within 30 seconds, tasered him twice. He died. (A bystander caught this on video. Very embarrassing.) If tasers are the answer to the stranded and the confused, well, it doesn't speak very well of human ingenuity. Please, when you train your officers: Show them what not to do. Show them the fatal Dziekanski takedown. And allow tasers to be used only when there's a real risk of serious bodily harm.

Police use the taser as a ready response to combative individuals - it's usually safe, especially when officers cross their fingers - but the use of such overwhelming and disproportionate force will sow distrust between the police and the communities they serve. With cameras ubiquitous, be prepared for the excrement to hit the fan.

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