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Saturday, April 25, 2009

EDITORIAL: Put Tasers down for now

April 25, 2009
Calgary Herald

W hen independent tests conclude more than one in 10 Tasers malfunctions, and with at least 25 Canadians dead after being shot by police stun guns, the prudent course of action is to halt the use of these weapons. Immediately.

Not in Alberta. Solicitor General Fred Lindsay continued to emphatically defend Tasers, even while confirming a Herald exclusive showing 12 per cent of those tested functioned outside of the manufacturer's specifications.

"I have not seen any evidence yet that would indicate that even though some of them are out of spec, there is any increased safety risk in using them," Lindsay told reporters Thursday. What kind of evidence is he looking for?

An independent Ontario firm tested 412 of Alberta's stun guns earlier this year. Fifty were flawed, and should never have been put in use. Now the remaining 735 will all be tested.

To get conclusive evidence, there would have to be more Taser-related deaths to study. Only then could a direct link be established.

But the province can't wait for such an actuality. Lindsay has sufficient reason to put the use of these conducted electricity weapons on hold, at least temporarily. Perhaps governments should even consider retiring them altogether from the arsenal. They are proving to be far less than initially billed, when first rolled out across the country.

Test results from other provinces and the RCMP consistently show a 10 per cent failure rate. If Tasers can't even be guaranteed to work within specifications, how can the public be assured they are pumping out a safe amount of electricity?

Even the theory pegging the malfunctioning weapons to an aging model no longer applies. Eight of the flawed guns in Alberta were newer models. Such results, along with compelling testimony from the fatality inquiry into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, undermine Lindsay's defence of the status quo.

Canadians simply no longer trust what the police establishment has to say about Tasers. Lindsay's assurances would be more convincing if he made public the details of the Tasers used in the two fatal incidents in Alberta. Have those guns been tested, and did they or did they not meet the specifications?

A malfunction rate of 10 per cent is unacceptable. The province needs to write an ironclad testing policy that will catch the faulty weapons before they are distributed.

At the RCMP, Commissioner William Elliott needs to reinstate rules governing the protocol of multiple discharges, this time with clear restrictions. Each discharge is 50,000 volts, and at that rate, police can't afford to be trigger-happy.

Yet, according to the shocking testimony coming out of the inquiry into Dziekanski's death, they are too quick to zap their suspects. Police initially said Dziekanski was only shot twice, whereas the weapon was actually deployed five times. Equally disturbing, the inquiry learned pepper spray could have easily been used instead.

This is telling, since Tasers were sold to the public as a last resort to lethal force. As the world now knows, in the case of Dziekanski, it was used seconds after four burly Mounties first made contact with the distraught man.

Short of major improvements -- in function, policy and police behaviour -- the next obituary written should be that of the stun guns.

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