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Sunday, December 14, 2008

EDITORIAL: Questions linger in stun gun death

December 14, 2008
Editorial, The Toronto Star

Canadians were appalled to see Polish traveller Robert Dziekanski's final tragic minutes play out on video last year. Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers used a stun gun to subdue the confused and out-of-control man at Vancouver airport. They jolted him five times, and knelt on him as he still struggled. Minutes later he died of heart failure.

The shocking video focused attention on police use of stun guns, and fuelled concern that they resort to the weapons too quickly, too often. That concern won't be eased by the decision Friday by British Columbia's Crown not to charge the four officers in the Oct. 14, 2007, death. Crown counsel Stan Lowe announced, "There is not a substantial likelihood of conviction" because they "were lawfully engaged in their duties" and acted in a "reasonable and necessary" manner.

Be that as it may, Dziekanski deserves better than a legal shrug.

This puts a heavy burden on Commissioner Thomas Braidwood, and his two-part probe of the affair. Last fall he looked into the use of stun guns generally, and a report is expected soon. Next month he will launch an inquiry into the circumstances in which Dziekanski died.

Braidwood has his work cut out for him. While the Mounties appear to have acted lawfully, troubling questions remain. Did they use a Taser stun gun too quickly, moments after encountering a man who spoke no English? Could he have been "talked down" by a translator? Why did the gun initially malfunction, its probes failing to stick? Dziekanski was jolted twice on the ground, struggling with police. Was that necessary, with four officers there? Are there procedural lessons to be learned?

More broadly, are stun guns as safe as advertised? Are police forces in general sufficiently trained and alert to risks? Is weapon testing and recalibration adequate? Are use-of-force protocols strict enough?

In his twin probes, Braidwood has an opportunity to shed light not only on Dziekanski's death but also on the science involving these weapons and on the training and rules that guide their use.

More than a few Canadians have died after being jolted with a Taser. In Dziekanski's case, pathologists believe delirium, the stress of being restrained, shortness of breath and alcohol withdrawal all played a role in the cardiac arrest.

That doesn't make this case less troubling. The public is worried about stun guns. We need to know more.

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