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Thursday, February 26, 2009

EDITORIAL: Tighten rules on stun gun use

February 26, 2009

We Canadians ask a great deal of our police officers. We expect them to be cool-headed, rational thinkers capable of calming a chaotic situation, and while we understand that they are capable of showing their negative emotions just like the rest of us, we do expect more of them. We expect them to quickly size up any difficult situation and, acting on the best information available, quickly restore order.

In addition, we accept that our police officers need to carry weapons -- notably guns, nightsticks and, only just recently, stun guns manufactured under the brand name Taser. And no reasonable person would suggest that our officers not use those weapons to protect their own lives or the lives of other citizens.

Lately, however, one of those weapons -- the stun gun -- has taken on a sinister reputation. Its use by Canadian police officers has been linked to more than 20 deaths, including that of a Polish citizen at the Vancouver airport in 2007. That death is currently the subject of a British Columbia justice department inquiry.

It is to be hoped that the police forces across this country learn from this inquiry, and accept whatever judgment is passed on the use of stun guns. The RCMP has already acknowledged that the use of stun guns could potentially kill, and has announced that Tasers will only be used on people who display a clear threat to the public or the police. Good for them.

In light of this, it is especially disturbing to read of the positions taken by the Canadian Police Association and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police who have launched a vigorous defence of the use of Tasers. Spokesmen for the two organizations spent much of a Tuesday news conference in Ottawa defending the use of the devices, and lashing out at critics' claims that the conducted-energy devices can be deadly.

Especially troubling, in light of evidence to the contrary, are comments made at the news conference by Ontario Provincial Police Chief Julian Fantino. "Tasers save lives and that's the bottom line." he said. "We decided to set the record straight.''

Yet officers at the news conference could not produce a single research document endorsing their point of view.

The facts are these. In most cases, when a stun gun is used on a young, healthy man, it acts to temporarily disable him without any long-term damage. But in some cases, perhaps if someone is weakened by disease or suffering from a pre-existing heart condition, the use of stun guns can and has been followed by death. There is almost no way a police officer responding to an emergency situation can know the medical history of an unruly citizen.

Guns, without question, can kill. Officers' nightsticks, depending on the nature of the altercation, can also deliver a fatal blow. And it's not inconceivable that an officer simply tackling a suspect could cause a fatal injury. While each of these scenarios is regrettable, the public understands that police need to be able to protect themselves and the community, and that the use of force is sometimes necessary to meet this goal.

What we now need from our police community is the acknowledgment that the use of stun guns can potentially be lethal, and that they should be used only in extreme circumstances.

Our police officers also have to understand that the public's criticism and concern about the use of Tasers is not an attack on the police officers themselves. It is a heartfelt plea for public safety.

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