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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Cops keeping Tasers

June 2, 2009
GILLIAN SLADE, Medicine Hat News

It seems unlikely police in Medicine Hat will be permanently removing the Taser from their holsters.

Solicitor General Fred Lindsay told the News he has not seen any evidence to indicate a Taser was responsible for deaths in the province. According to Lindsay, police statistics show very few injuries or deaths occurring after a Taser has been deployed. “I would have to see evidence that the voltage of the Taser was directly responsible for causing the death,” he said. “Between 2005 and 2007, the Taser was used 2,100 times in Alberta. In that time frame there were only two deaths after its use and less than one per cent of those Tasered required treatment in hospital or at an emergency room.”

In Medicine Hat, police deployed Tasers 56 times from 2006 to 2008 inclusive, with only five injuries resulting from either falling after being Tasered or injuries sustained during a struggle, according to information supplied by Medicine Hat Police Service.

According to Chief of Police Andy McGrogan, of the 56 incidents in Medicine Hat the Taser deployment resulted in “contact stuns” 23 times, meaning the cartridge was not deployed. Three times it was “ineffective deployment” and contact was not made with the individual. Sixteen times it resulted in “probed deployments” where the probe made contact with the person or their clothing, and on 14 occasions the Taser was simply “pointed and displayed” but not deployed.

In 2006, statistics were not kept on “pointed and displayed” incidents. Since guidelines for the use of Tasers were issued, the number of times a Taser is used has dropped, according to Lindsay.

“Our procedure for the use of Tasers was adjusted a couple of months ago,” said McGrogan. “They are only used when someone is resisting at a high level which is likely to cause injury to themselves or others.”

Reports released about the deaths of individuals who were Tasered have identified factors such as acute cocaine toxicity and excited delirium as possible causes. Lindsay says these causes were cited in deaths before Tasers were in use.

“Deaths were occurring when police used pepper spray,” said Lindsay. “Pepper spray was said to be constricting the throat of individuals.”

RCMP were one of the first Canadian forces to use pepper spray in 1992 for crowd control. It was introduced as a non-lethal weapon, an alternative to using guns.
The deaths that resulted from pepper spray were reported to be related to a pre-existing condition such as asthma.

Lindsay said police are often in situations where split-second decisions have to be made. "We do know that drugs, and in some cases those with a mental illness, can give people super-human strength,” said Lindsay. “Officers get tired handling an over excited individual for a long time and for the individual it is a strain on the heart.”

McGrogan notes “positional asphixiation” can also be the cause of death. He described “excited delirium” as “an altered medical state” which officers are trained to look for and request medical assistance when observed.

Confident that the Taser has not caused any deaths McGrogan stated, “Medicine Hat Police Service will stop the use of Tasers when we hear the Taser has been scientifically proven to cause death. We depend on the solicitor general to determine the facts.”

However, McGrogan wants to assure the public they have no intention of needlessly using force that is not appropriate.

Of the five Alberta deaths following the use of a Taser, only two reports have been released so far and they took years to be released. Regarding the three currently under investigation by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, there is no time frame in which they must complete an investigation. Lindsay defends this by saying there is so much to investigate and they can only release a report when the details are available.

Toxicity reports appear to contribute significantly to delays as they typically take eight of nine months. “We have to use an RCMP National Laboratory because it has to be done at an accredited lab,” said Lindsay. “We are currently reviewing this to see how it can be shortened.”

Lindsay defends the fact police are investigated by police in these situations.
“The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team is directed by a lawyer but police are needed on the team in order to really understand the situation they’re investigating,” said Lindsay.

The long delays for family of the victim to be informed of details surrounding a death can’t be helped. “When a death occurs after a Taser was used it becomes a criminal investigation,” said Lindsay, explaining this limits what the family of the victim can be told and their access to the body before an autopsy has been completed.
The possibility of releasing some information prior to releasing the full report on an investigation, which has the potential for reducing public speculation, is not one Lindsay will consider.

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