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Friday, July 24, 2009

Report spurs British Columbia to limit Taser use

July 24, 2009
by Robert Anglen
The Arizona Republic

A government investigation released Thursday in Canada concluded that Taser stun guns can cause death, spurring British Columbia to put severe new restrictions on how and when police there can use the weapons.

Retired Judge Thomas Braidwood, who was tasked by the Canadian province with leading the 18-month public inquiry into the stun gun, said police departments failed to properly research the weapon before putting it on the streets.

In a 556-page report, Braidwood said that police have used the stun gun in situations that do not warrant its use and recommended that Tasers be used only in criminal cases where there is an imminent threat of bodily harm. He also said any officer equipped with a Taser should also be equipped with a defibrillator.
The head of public safety in British Columbia adopted Braidwood's 19 recommendations. The public-safety office will implement restrictions on Taser use by all police departments and corrections officers, including national police agencies operating in the province.

British Columbia was the country's first province to adopt the use of Tasers.

Officials with Scottsdale-based Taser International challenged the commission's findings, calling them political and uninformed.

"It appears that politics has trumped science in the commission," Taser Vice President Steve Tuttle said in an e-mail.

"While emphasizing dramatic statements related to risk, the commission . . . based its recommendations largely on speculation and ignored key facts."

Tuttle said the new policies could hinder police rather than help them.

"Overly restrictive policies on Taser-device usage will force police officers to migrate to other, more dangerous force options such as batons, physical force and even firearms, resulting in more, not fewer, deaths and injuries in police confrontations," he said.

This is the latest blow for Taser in Canada. In December, police agencies across the country began pulling old Tasers off the streets after a study commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. found that some Tasers gave off more power than the manufacturer's specifications.

An accompanying medical analysis concluded that the higher jolts pose as much as a 50 percent risk of inducing cardiac arrest in some people.

The Braidwood Inquiry was initiated after the 2007 death of a Polish immigrant at Vancouver International Airport who stopped breathing after being shocked five times by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers.

Taser officials, who testified at length during the public hearings, have long maintained that the stun guns cannot cause heart attacks and have never been directly responsible for causing a death.

Braidwood acknowledged the benefits of Taser and its lifesaving potential. But he also said medical evidence shows the gun can cause death, particularly heart attacks, and should be limited.

He said the commission examined medical research, testimony from doctors and test studies from Taser supporters and detractors.

He said the evidence shows that risk of ventricular fibrillation, a chaotic heart rhythm characteristic of a heart attack, increases in people with heart disease, high blood pressure and thin people with unusually thin chest-skin-to-heart distance. He also said discharges of the Taser into someone's upper torso can "impair the subject's ability to breath."

"I am satisfied from the evidence before me that the conducted-energy weapons (stun guns) cause intense pain, incapacitate the subject and have the capacity to cause the subject's death," Braidwood said. "Surely, there must be some . . . threshold below which the use of a (Taser) cannot be justified."

Tasers are handheld devices that fire darts connected to the gun by wires, allowing officers to stun targets from a distance.

In the United States, Tasers are used by more than 12,000 police agencies, including every major law-enforcement agency in the Valley. Many authorities credit the weapon with preventing deaths and injuries to officers and suspects.

But since 2001, there have been more than 400 deaths following police Taser strikes in the United States and 26 in Canada. Medical examiners have ruled that a Taser was a cause, contributing factor or could not be ruled out in more than 30 of those deaths.

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