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Monday, March 30, 2009

EDITORIAL: Shocked, repeatedly

March 30, 2009
The Ottawa Citizen

When police Taser someone, they are administering force -- physically interfering with the suspect's body. Sometimes this is what police have to do, and they have a variety of instruments with which to do it -- not just a Taser but, depending on the situation, their fists, a baton, even a gun.

It ought to be self-evident that the more times you apply a physical force or trauma to a person, the greater the risk of serious injury. Five cracks to the head with a baton are more dangerous than one. Getting shot is never good, but taking three bullets is worse than taking one.

Robert Dziekanski, the Polish immigrant who died in a confrontation with RCMP at the Vancouver airport, was Tasered five times. Common sense suggests that the repeated administration of debilitating electric shocks elevates the risk of lasting injury, or death. Yet because Tasers are officially deemed "non-lethal," some of their defenders deny the risk.

A punch in the face is generally a non-lethal use of force too, but five punches in the head represents an altogether different kind of weapon.

Common sense has now been confirmed thanks to a study by Montreal biomedical engineer Pierre Savard. Savard analysed data from thousands of Taser incidents and discovered what he calls a "linear relationship" -- the more shocks you receive, the more likely your chance of dying. It's becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that multiple Tasering did not contribute to Dziekanski's death.

This isn't to say police departments should stop carrying Tasers -- although in Quebec the weapons are being pulled from service because many are believed to deliver more of a shock than specified by the manufacturer. Tasers can be a useful tool. They are less lethal than guns and cause no injury most of the time. But police officers need to know that any weapon used clumsily, or excessively, can produce an undesired outcome.

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