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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Robertson backpedals on taser moratorium

January 22, 2009
Mike Howell, Vancouver Courier

Mayor Gregor Robertson has again shifted his position on whether the Vancouver Police Department should continue to use Tasers.

Robertson, who is chair of the Vancouver Police Board, said Wednesday he won't ask board members to vote for a moratorium on the weapon. "As a member of the police board with one tie-breaking vote, I don't have the direct call on this," Robertson told the Courier after a police board meeting at the Cambie Street police station. "It's an operational decision for the chief [Jim Chu] to make, and I respect that."

But the mayor said his "personal preference" would be that the VPD stop using Tasers until the Braidwood inquiry into the use of stun guns releases a report later this year. "We should be more precautionary until we know definitively that this is a safe tool," he added.

The inquiry is examining the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport Oct. 14, 2007. RCMP fired a Taser several times at Dziekanski, who died at the scene.

During Robertson's campaign to become mayor, he called for a moratorium on the VPD's use of Tasers. After his first police board meeting in December, Robertson backed off his request for a moratorium. At the time, he pointed to B.C. Solicitor General John van Dongen's directive in December to have all municipal police forces pull selected stun guns from service.

Robertson said then that "hopefully there's more robust efforts to ensure that indeed all the equipment is safe in lieu of a moratorium." Three VPD officers made a presentation Wednesday to the police board on the Taser. They spoke about what they argued was the weapon's effectiveness in arresting people who otherwise would have to be tackled, struck with a baton or shot with a gun.

VPD officers fired the Taser 27 times in 2008 and pointed it 36 times at suspects who surrendered rather than be zapped by the high-voltage weapon. The VPD's use of the weapon in 2008 was markedly lower than in 2007 (74 times), 2006 (93) and in 2005 (66). No reason was provided for the decrease.

Const. Tammy Hammell told a story about getting called to an incident where a person was "running around the West End with a hatchet."

When aiming a Taser, it shines a little red laser dot on the target. In the case in the West End, the man surrendered after he noticed the dot shining on his chest, Hammell said.

"The person dropped the hatchet and it was done-the situation was under control, and that person is out enjoying life today," she said.

The officers also pointed to a study conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians that concluded serious injuries from a Taser are extremely rare. The three-year study, which was released Jan. 15, found that 492 of 1,201 criminal suspects suffered mild injuries-mostly superficial puncture wounds-when hit with a Taser.

Only three "significant injuries" were recorded. Two suffered head injuries from a fall and the third suffered "a rapid breakdown" of muscle tissue.

"These weapons appear to be very safe, especially when compared to other options police have for subduing violent or combative suspects," wrote study author Dr. William P. Bozeman of Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "That is not to say that injuries and deaths are impossible. Police and medical personnel need to be aware of the potential for serious injury and look for evidence that a person subdued by a Taser has been hurt."

A Taser, which is a brand name, resembles a handgun and releases 50,000 volts of electricity through two probes into clothing or skin.

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