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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Editorial: The taming of the taser

February 14, 2009
Winnipeg Free Press

The revelation this week by RCMP that the force now considers the Taser a potentially deadly weapon shows that police are divorcing themselves, finally, from the manufacturer's stalwart assurances the stun gun is a safe, non-lethal device. It is a useful development that other police forces in Canada should adopt in their training of officers in Taser use.

Since its introduction as a weapon of enforcement, police across Canada have become more comfortable with stun guns, a weapon of choice for subduing non-compliant, potentially violent suspects. Shot from a distance, a stun gun also saves officers from harm they might encounter in close contact with volatile people. But that same comfort with the weapon has triggered tragic results -- more than 20 Canadians have died after being stunned, with some of the deaths being blamed directly on the Tasering.

The allegations have been rejected by police forces and the electronic device's manufacturer. The manufacturer, Taser International, has insisted that the Taser does not disrupt heart function, but animal tests have shown it can. Police forces were undeterred.

Now, however, RCMP commissioner William Elliot has told a House of Commons committee that the national police force has formally curbed the use of the stun gun. A review of the RCMP policy following the tragic death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport in 2007 discovered that officers had begun to pull out their stun gun with greater frequency -- usage creep -- to immobilize those who were "actively resistant," which could mean simply refusing to be handcuffed. Mr. Dziekanski was visibly upset when RCMP officers approached him, but he was neither physically violent, nor threatening when he was Tasered, twice, and then physically restrained. He died within minutes of heart failure.

The new RCMP policy classifies the weapon as carrying a risk of death, particularly to people in a heightened, agitated state. It restricts the use of a Taser to cases where there exists danger to the public or the officers.

The RCMP has had long, robust experience with the use of stun guns. The development should inform other forces, including the Winnipeg Police Service, in the training and use of the guns. At present, Winnipeg officers are permitted to use a Taser in situations where force is required, where an individual is resisting arrest and may flee and if the individual is in a state of excited delirium. A suspect need not be combative to elicit a shot from a stun gun.

It has taken some hard, sad lessons to spark a refinement of the RCMP policy, to recognize that contrary to manufacturer claims, stun guns are not quite as safe as originally thought. Instructing officers in the use of the weapon, in that context, and particularly cautioning them against Tasering a suspect in a state of extreme agitation, should lead to a reduction in its use. The Winnipeg force should rewrite its protocol on training and Taser use.

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