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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tasers not harmless

February 25, 2009
By TOM BRODBECK, Winnipeg Sun

Canada's two largest police groups admitted on Parliament Hill yesterday that cops have used Taser guns too often and that they should cut down on the number of times they zap people with them.

It's a startling admission.

The Canadian Chiefs of police and the Canadian Police Association held a joint news conference in Ottawa, mostly to defend the use of the controversial weapons, but also to concede they've been abused.

The admission comes on the heels of a new RCMP policy this month that states Tasers should only be used when officers or the public are at risk.

What amazes me is that Tasers were ever authorized to be used for anything less than that in the first place, especially given the number of other intermediary weapons available to officers, including pepper spray and batons.

The problem with Tasers is they were launched under the false understanding that they're essentially harmless, which we now know isn't entirely true.

We know it's difficult to directly link Tasers to Taser-related deaths. But we also know there have been hundreds of deaths immediately following the use of a Taser. There's a certain level of cause and effect that simply can't be ignored. The fact the RCMP and the country's two largest police groups are now admitting that Tasers have been used too often confirms that the weapons -- under certain circumstances -- are potentially deadly.

Otherwise, they would not have issued that edict.

The real question is how police agencies were ever convinced that they could use Tasers as routine tools to quell unco-operative suspects. There was obviously a lack of due diligence in both testing and deployment protocol before these things hit the streets. And the result was that some cops believed they could use the "harmless" weapons to soften up suspects to make an easier arrest.

The high-profile case of Robert Dziekanski who died after being zapped with a Taser at Vancouver's airport serves as the perfect example.

The video of the incident clearly shows Dziekanski was unarmed -- except for a stapler he was holding -- and was not lunging towards any officer, nor posing a threat to any member of the public. He should have been dealt with diplomatically as long as possible and an intermediary weapon, such as a Taser, should have only been used if an officer's safety were truly in jeopardy.

The flip side to this story is that the two police organizations who spoke about Tasers yesterday are also right in that Tasers do save lives. Just because Tasers have been misused doesn't mean they should be banned. They are very useful intermediary weapons that can succeed in subduing a violent suspect where, say, pepper spray fails.

Instead of jumping from pepper spray to a service pistol -- which is far more likely to kill -- Tasers can be useful intermediary alternatives. Which means it's not the weapon itself that's a problem, but how it's used and what use-of-force protocols are in place to guide officers.

Obviously Tasers should never be used unless officers or the public are at risk. I'm surprised that wasn't a given during initial deployment of this weapon. However, rather than ban or scale back on their distribution to officers, they should be expanded with new, restricted protocols on their use. It would definitely save lives.

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