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Friday, May 08, 2009

Alberta Tories refuse to ban use of Tasers

May 8, 2009
By Jason Fekete And Jason Van Rassel, Calgary Herald

CALGARY - The Stelmach government rejected calls to ban police use of Tasers and defended the weapon's safety record on Thursday after a Brooks man died after police used a Taser while trying to subdue him.

Alberta Solicitor General Fred Lindsay called Wednesday's death" a tragic incident" and vowed the government will conduct more regular testing of Tasers from municipal police forces under his department's jurisdiction. But the NDP said the government isn't going far enough, and described the latest fatality as further reason why police should be banned from using the weapons.

But Lindsay said the devices have proven extremely useful in subduing culprits and protecting the police and public, and the Liberals agreed Tasers are an important part of the police arsenal.

"It's a tool that's very effective in helping police make arrests and it protects both police and the public," Lindsay told reporters at the legislature. "Until such time as we have evidence otherwise, we're going to continue to have them."

The minister believes the public has confidence about the safety of Tasers and police services' ability to use them effectively.

There's "really no evidence" to suggest the weapons have caused any deaths in Canada, Lindsay argued.

But the safety record of Tasers is once again under the microscope following Wednesday's incident in Brooks, 185 kilometres southeast of Calgary. The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, a provincial squad which investigates police conduct in events that result in serious injury or death, has been called in to determine if a Taser played a role in the death of 40-year-old Brooks resident Grant William Prentice.

The RCMP said officers were called to a residential area of Brooks around 7:30 p. m. Wednesday to investigate a complaint about a man who was injured and causing a disturbance.

ASIRT investigators said an officer fired a Taser once while trying to arrest Prentice, but it's not yet known if the probes that transmit an electrical current meant to incapacitate a suspect made contact with his skin.

Officers were able to handcuff Prentice and paramedics took him to hospital, where he died.

NDP Leader Brian Mason noted Prentice is at least the fifth Albertan to die after police deployed a Taser and demanded Alberta follow Newfound-land and Labrador's recent decision to ban police officers from using the devices.

"I don't think the weapon is either safe nor have the police shown that they are willing to abide by rules on its utilization,"Mason said.

He said deploying a Taser as an alternative to physically subduing someone, or for disobeying a police officer, are inappropriate uses of the device.

Liberal public security critic Kent Hehr, however, said his party still supports officers using the weapon as long as they're functioning properly and employed by police under appropriate circumstances.

The party will reconsider its stance if provincial government tests prove they're malfunctioning, he added.

"We think this is an effective policing tool, "Hehr said. "But we're going to have to keep an eye on this."

A two-year study conducted by the Canadian Police Research Centre recently examined several use of force methods used by officers found that batons caused a higher rate of injury than Tasers. The study scored Tasers high in safety for both officers and suspects, noting only one per cent of subjects subdued with the weapon required hospitalization, and 87 per cent suffered only minor injuries or weren't hurt at all.Batons, on the other hand, injured 39 per cent of subjects and resulted in the hospitalization of three per cent.

Tasers are often responsible for preventing death and serious injury because they can subdue a suspect quickly, one of thestudy'sco-authors, Calgary police Staff Sgt. Chris Butler. "The longer a confrontation is allowed to go on, the much more unpredictable the outcome will be," Butler said.

It's important for police to have a variety of less-lethal tools at their disposal, Butler said, noting suspects under the influence of drugs often don't respond to pain-inducing weapons like batons or pepper spray.

"We can't control those people with-out a high risk of injury," he said.

And unlike those other weapons, Tasers allow an officer to keep a safe distance from a suspect, added Butler.

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