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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tasers overused and unreliable

September 24, 2009
John Lapsley, McGill Daily

Polytechnique professor condemns taser lethality, inconsistent performance

A lecture held at McGill Monday night warned that overuse and risk of malfunction make tasers far more dangerous than previously believed.

Pierre Savard of the École Polytechnique de Montreal led the audience through his research on the effects of electric stimulation on the human heart, demonstrating that use of electric stun guns can at times cause fatal complications.

“For many subjects with individual susceptibilities, the taser is in fact lethal,” Savard said, pointing out that individuals with heart disease and drug users face greater risks.

“The taser shock is analogous to the stress test hospitals give heart patients to test for defects,” Savard said. “These shocks stimulate flexors, extensors, and every nerve ending in the body.”

According to Savard, the danger present in these so-called “non-lethal weapons” is further exacerbated by what he saw as the RCMP’s gross overuse of tasers.

Savard illustrated this point with instances in which police used stun guns to wake up a subject sleeping on a bench and to pacify a grandmother who was making too much noise at a nursing home.

“It’s so easy to silence a subject [with a taser],” Savard said. “Too many policemen use it like the mute button on a remote control.”

Savard, a professor of electrical and biomedical engineering, began his investigation into taser safety after the October 2007 death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski. Dziekanski could not understand English and became lost shortly after arriving at Vancouver International Airport. After an agitated Dziekanski threw a computer and small table to the ground, RCMP officers tasered him five times. Dziekanski died almost immediately.

Dziekanski’s death spurred a Michener Prize-winning CBC-Radio Canada investigation into taser safety, which found that at least 10 per cent of the stun guns currently in use in Canada malfunction outside of manufacturer specifications, putting subjects at greater risk of death.

Several individual police forces in Canada launched concurrent investigations that supported CBC-Radio Canada’s findings.

Based on these studies, groups like Amnesty International and the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP stepped forward, condemning taser overuse and urging a moratorium on stun guns until further research could be done.

Taser International, the sole manufacturer of tasers, responded dismissively to these studies.

Peter Holran, the company’s spokesman, called it regrettable that “false allegations based on scientifically flawed data” could raise such concerns and reaffirmed the quality of Taser International’s products.

Savard was concerned by Taser International’s lack of transparency. Savard noted that medical instrument manufacturers have “traceability,” meaning that a defective medical instrument can be traced piece by piece back to the raw materials, allowing selective safety recalls. Weapons manufacturers also undergo strict objective scrutiny from outside safety agencies. Tasers, however, qualify as neither medical instruments nor weapons, and are therefore subject only to the manufacturer’s testing standards.

Savard quipped, “If it’s not a weapon and it’s not medical equipment, it’s a toy.”

Tasers, however, still rank among police officers’ safest methods of applying force.

Savard cited a 2006-2007 study of Calgary police officers’ force interactions which demonstrated that out of all non-lethal force methods, stun gun interactions least frequently necessitated medical attention for the subject or the officer.

Savard himself admitted that tasers are among the safer means of subduing suspects, but firmly reiterated that more research into stun gun lethality, and more transparency in the manufacturing process are necessary if police officers are to continue using them on suspects.

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