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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Stunning lack of consistency

July 28, 2009
By RICKY LEONG, Calgary Sun

When a retired B.C. judge said last week Tasers could kill, he admonished his province for failing to establish standards for the use of the electrical stun guns.

Ironically, his report exposes a major flaw in Taser use across Canada, in that there are no national standards.

Thomas Braidwood's Taser inquiry was prompted by the death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport in 2007. The Polish man became agitated in the international arrivals area and was later subjected to a stun gun by B.C. Mounties who were called to the scene. Dziekanski died.

In his report, issued Thursday, Braidwood outlined recommendations to the B.C. government relating to the use of stun guns by police officers. B.C.'s solicitor general immediately endorsed Braidwood's findings. In short, energy weapons can be deployed by B.C. police officers only during the most serious cases requiring intervention. British Columbia RCMP have also adopted the recommendations.

Whether energy weapons can actually cause harm has been hotly contested over the years. Taser Corp., the major manufacturer of such weapons, has consistently pointed to research showing they are harmless. (But then, ordinarily harmless things have been known to kill people in extraordinary circumstances.) Reacting to the Braidwood inquiry recommendations through media reports, Taser Corp. said excessive restrictions on stun-gun use are a bad idea because the alternatives -- firearms, batons and hand-to-hand combat -- are far more dangerous for police officers and civilians alike.

Regardless, a new policy for Taser use is now in place in B.C. Sadly, this newfound clarity turns into fog the minute you cross the Continental Divide. National standards for RCMP have remained unchanged since the release of Braidwood's report, although officers have been instructed to use the Braidwood inquiry's findings as suggestions to complement existing RCMP policies.

This issue isn't foreign to Alberta, either. Two Alberta men have died so far this year after being stunned by energy weapons during police interventions. Mounties here have said they would not change their policies on Taser use until they get a green light from the province -- which looks to be coming in a few days. But in essence, right now, Tasers have been found to be deadly in B.C., but nowhere else in Canada.

It's like those inserts you find with something you bought at the store, which state the product "contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm."

There should be one set of rules across Canada for the deployment of energy weapons.

In no other realm is this type of inequality acceptable. We have one currency. One system for weights and measures. One set of standards for declaring a harmful level of bacteria in food and water. One set of standards for overdosing on common over-the-counter drugs. A universal number to call in case of an emergency.

In the end, it comes down to regulating the actions of police when they are faced with dangerous situations on the job, whatever the weapon the officer needs to use.

When de-escalation tactics have failed, use of force should always be the last resort. We need a clear national directive telling police officers and civilians where stun guns fit in.

The current hodge-podge of regulations surrounding the use of stun guns by police in Canada is intolerable.

When it comes to police use of weapons, whether it be batons, firearms, Tasers or bare hands, we deserve better than a patchwork of rules.

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