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Saturday, December 13, 2008

EDITORIAL: tasers and public safety

December 13, 2008
Kingston Whig-Standard

Police departments across Canada, including the RCMP, are pulling older Tasers from service after concerns were raised about their safety in a CBC investigative report. The study found that four out of 44 of the X26 model stun guns fired charges significantly higher than what the company's specifications indicate. The medical analysis accompanying the findings suggests that these higher charges could increase the chance of inducing cardiac arrest by up to 50%.

Following the CBC report, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services said they had instructed all police services in the province "to test their X26 models to ensure they're functioning correctly."

But here in Kingston, Police Chief Stephen Tanner has decided not to follow the ministry directive, even though all 34 of the force's Tasers are X26s. Tanner said nothing in the ministry instructions specifically calls for the weapons to be "electrically tested." He also told the Whig-Standard that he doesn't want to leave his officers without access to the Tasers.

"The risk would be much greater in not having those weapons on the street, either for the officers not to have them to protect themselves or to have that alternative level of force available to them," Tanner said.

Tasers are highly controversial. Since 2001, more than 400 people in Canada and the U. S. have died after being shocked by the weapons, which are considered a less deadly alternative to handguns. Kingston police used Tasers five times this year, without any reported problems.

Arizona-based Taser International is denying any irregularities with the X26 and disputes the CBC findings. It says the study was flawed because the weapons under scrutiny hadn't been test-fired first, as they recommend.

But National Technical Systems, the Californiabased engineering firm that conducted the tests for the CBC, confirmed that one of the X26 Tasers did emit a higher-than-expected charge on a second firing.

Tanner said his officers always pre-test. But that provides no assurance that a safe level of current is being discharged.

Tanner's decision is hardly reassuring for Kingstonians.

The main issue, after all, is not officer safety but public safety.

It's as though someone had discovered that the 9-mm handguns used by Kingston police were leaving wounds indicative of much larger-calibre pistols -yet retesting or reassessment isn't necessary.

No one wants Kingston police officers to be denied the proper equipment to do their job. However, if they have 34 Tasers that were used only five times all year, wouldn't it be possible to take a certain number out of use to be tested on a rotating basis?

This is an urgent matter of public safety. If Tanner doubts the potential health risks, he should call Pierre Savard, the University of Montreal biomedical engineer who has written an analysis on the health risks posed by Tasers. Savard told the Arizona Republic newspaper this week that the weapons can accelerate some people's heart rates to dangerous levels. "As a scientist," he concluded, "the risk is not zero."

And that, we hasten to add, is his assessment of Tasers that fire at properly calibrated levels.

Chief Tanner must change his position and begin testing of his force's stun guns.

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