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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Vulnerable targets

September 9, 2009
The Globe and Mail

The taser's days as a police weapon of choice are numbered. It is not only that the taser can kill, as an inquiry in British Columbia found this summer. It is that the population it is often used on, the mentally ill or drug users in the grips of the supercharged state of anxiety that some call excited delirium, are at high risk of death, according to a Nova Scotia medical panel, in a report released this week.

A weapon that can kill, a population that is on a precipice. It is a bad combination. To be fair, police have a hugely difficult job when facing a man or woman who may be high on drugs or severely mentally ill, and is out of control. But police have been too quick to rush in with the taser blazing (or zapping), arguing that it is safe - and that if people die afterward, well, it was their "underlying condition" that killed them. The police absolved themselves of responsibility.

Not so fast, says the Nova Scotia panel, set up by the health and justice ministries and chaired by Stan Kutcher, who holds the Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health at Dalhousie University. It recommends that, when police recognize the agitated state in someone, they ask for backup and summon emergency health services. They are then to try to de-escalate the situation, if there is no imminent danger. They are to do so in part by removing hazardous objects and bystanders who may be increasing the agitation or noise. "Demands should be made in a non-challenging manner." Police should make offers to assist.

In other words, they should do everything that the RCMP didn't do when four Mounties surrounded a distressed Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, at the Vancouver International Airport in October, 2007, zapped him five times and then sat on the back of his neck. He died within minutes, and no definitive cause of death has been established.

Police in many jurisdictions have been using the taser at low levels of risk - where people posed no physical threat. The logic supporting its widespread use has crumbled. Tasers are not safe; the studies supporting their supposed safety are iffy; police have a responsibility to exercise extreme caution with people at risk of death, and to use force only in proportion to the threat to public safety. Nova Scotia and British Columbia now insist the use of the taser must be restricted to violent situations of serious danger. The rest of the country should follow their lead.

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