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Monday, October 12, 2009

Aim tasers away from chest, RCMP told

October 12, 2009
Daniel Leblanc, Globe and Mail

RCMP officers have to stop aiming their stun guns at the heart and chest, after Taser International raised new concerns about its weapons causing cardiac arrest.

As of last Friday, Mounties are called upon to aim their tasers at the abdomen, legs or back of people they want to subdue – abandoning the chest, which offers the biggest and easiest target.

“It's a major shift from what we're used to, and it certainly has lessened the target zone,” said Staff Sergeant Scott Warren, chairman of the RCMP's officer safety committee. “I think we were all surprised that quite suddenly, [Taser International] had changed their opinion on the taser.”

The new “taser targeting guide” was forwarded to all RCMP officers on Friday and is already in effect. To make sure that everyone understands the new procedure, Mounties will undergo a new round of training.

Taser International issued the directive at the end of September, saying that cutting back on chest shots “avoids the controversy about whether [electronic control devices] do or do not affect the human heart.”

Taser said in its bulletin that the “risk of an adverse cardiac event” related to taser use is “deemed to be extremely low.” However, the company adds that a number of factors come into play, including drug use or underlying cardiac problems that cannot be diagnosed by police officers on the spot.

Taser users are now expected to aim, whenever possible, at the balancing muscles in the pelvic area. According to Taser, that will lower the legal consequences in the event of death involving the use of the weapon.

“We believe this recommendation will improve the effective use of Taser ECDs while also increasing safety margins and enhancing the ability to defend such cases in post-event legal proceedings,” the Taser bulletin says.

A battery-powered taser fires two barbed darts attached to wires. The darts hit the subject at different spots on the body, and the subsequent burst of electricity overwhelms the normal electrical messages in the central nervous system, locking up muscles.

NDP MP Don Davies said the new rules are inadequate, and called for a moratorium on taser use until further testing is conducted.

“Up until now, Taser International has consistently taken the position that their weapons were completely safe,” he said. “This seems to me to be a clear admission that this is not the case.”

The RCMP's view on tasers has rapidly evolved after events like the death of Polish traveller Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver airport in 2007.

Last February, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott surprised many observers when he acknowledged that people hit by tasers “may be at a high risk of death” if they are agitated or delirious.

“I do not think there is evidence that tasers kill, but certainly, we have had some incidents where shortly after a taser was deployed, individuals died,” Mr. Elliott said in announcing new rules on the weapon's usage.

Mr. Elliott said the weapons can no longer be used against people who are simply refusing to co-operate with Mounties.

“Prior to June of last year, the RCMP's policies would have permitted the use of tasers in dealing, for example, with people who were actively resistant,” he said. “We've now made it very clear that the only time the use of a taser can be justified is where there is a threat, either to our officers or to members of the public.”

Four months ago, a number of police forces in Canada took 1,600 older-model tasers out of service until each unit could be tested. Testing revealed that the older units produced less electrical output than expected 90 per cent of the time.

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