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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Shocking: Taser producer files suit against Inquiry recommendations

August 18, 2009
By Am Johal, rabble

Taser International seems to have a greater interest in moving product than it does in improving the safety of its devices or acknowledging the role of its patented devices in killing people. In its haste to file legal challenges, the company is trying to silence its critics and create its own regulatory policy regime.

The question is, will governments, courts and the international human rights system stand up to this rogue corporation?

In a bizarre, American-style legal and public relations intervention, Taser International filed a lawsuit last week against the recommendations of the Braidwood Inquiry.

Taser International is using hardball American public relations tactics to grow its company, despite clear evidence of human rights implications associated with use of their device. Much of this is happening with the full support of Canadian and American policing agencies. The Canadian media's failure to criticize Taser International on these matters effectively is a reflection of Canada's underdeveloped public sphere.

The 18-month inquiry, completed in July 2009, concluded that tasers can cause death in specific circumstances, particularly to those with underlying health conditions and when there are multiple uses of the weapon on the same person. The inquiry was initiated after the high profile death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver Airport, where he was approached by four RCMP officers and tasered repeatedly.

On Friday, David Neave, an attorney for Taser International in Canada said, "We provided ... more than 170 studies, periodicals (and) reports with respect to the safety of the device and use-of-force questions. All of that information clearly indicates that when the device is used properly there is not cardiac effect. For reasons unknown to us, that information did not wind its way into the report."

According to Taser International, the taser is used by 350,000 police officers in over 12,750 offices in 45 countries. The weapon has been deployed in the field approximately 547,000 times. Another 680,000 human volunteers have been exposed to the taser, largely during police training.

Justice Braidwood and the inquiry wrote a 556-page report over an 18-month period. For the manufacturer of conducted energy weapons to conclude that certain information was not included is nothing more than a public relations intervention.

By using American-style legal intervention in Canada over delicate public policy matters, Taser International is pursuing an offensive strategy that dehumanizes the victims -- those who have died as a result of the weapon being approved without rigorous, independent studies to verify its safety. Taser International, by using legal maneuvers, is also attempting to place a chill on critics of the device.

Taser International recently announced the release of a new model of taser that can fire multiple shots even though multiple uses have been implicated in deaths. Taser International has also released personal tasers in the United States that can be bought in hot pink or leopard print. In Canada, the taser is a prohibited weapon, but is unregulated and sold on the retail market in the U.S.

In June 2008, Taser International lost its first product liability claim in the United States. Taser was forced to pay $6.2 million related to the death of a California man who was hit multiple times by police.

At the time, Doug Klint, vice president and general counsel of Taser International, said, "Certainly, this was a tragedy for the [Robert Heston] family as well as for the officers involved. We however do not feel the verdict is supported by the facts including the testimony of the world-class experts who testified on our behalf with scientific and medical evidence. Our commitment to continue to defend our life-saving products and to support law enforcement remains unchanged."

Since 2001, there have been over 300 deaths in the U.S. associated with taser use and 25 in Canada. A significant number of those deaths involved either prolonged use of the taser or multiple uses. In over 20 of these cases, coroners have listed tasers as a contributing factor in the deaths. Only about 10 per cent of the deaths involved individuals who were carrying weapons.

Last year, Dalia Hashad, director of Amnesty International's domestic human rights program said, "Science paid for by Taser International should not be trusted. There is an open scientific question on the safety of this device. They are an unknown quantity in many areas and need to be studied further before they are unleashed on the public. We have to start talking about whether force is necessary or not in specific questions, rather than whether a gun or a Taser should be deployed."

An RCMP led study found that 'usage creep' of the device was widespread and altered its process for using the device higher up its 'use of force' spectrum.

Justice Braidwood was appointed the sole commissioner under B.C.'s Public Inquiry Act. The Braidwood Inquiry found that if tasers do contribute to death, the most likely cause is ventricular fibrillation likely caused by the weapon's electrical current leading to "a chaotic rhythm of the heart's two ventricles." In this state, the heart can beat 200-300 beats per minute, the individual can lose consciousness in 5-10 minutes and die within 10 minutes.

It is also possible that the taser can induce spasms in the muscles of respiration that can interfere with an individual's ability to breathe.

There are still outstanding questions and a lack of evidence to prove that tasers are safe weapons. The hundreds of people who have died after being tasered around North America should give obvious cause for concern.

Unfortunately, for some corporations like Taser International, the bottom line has a greater value than human rights.

Most importantly, the legal action by Taser International should not be used as a pretext to prolong the implementation of recommendations related to taser use, both provincially and nationally. Nor should it be used by policing agencies to advance a policy agenda on tasers that does not meet the test of the public interest.

Am Johal is a rabble columnist and the founder and Chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition.

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