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Monday, October 12, 2009

Aim Tasers lower, police told

October 12, 2009
Petty Fong, Toronto Star

Police forces across Canada, including the RCMP and OPP, are immediately changing their Taser use policy after the manufacturer issued a directive that officers should not aim the weapon at a suspect's chest.

Taser International said in a bulletin that it's no longer advisable to aim the conducted energy weapon, which sends out a jolt of electricity, at a target's chest area to avoid impact to the heart.

"[W]e have lowered the recommended point of aim from centre of mass to lower centre of mass for front shots," the company said in a new training bulletin.

Rather than the chest area, which could lead to electricity affecting the heart, the company said police officers should target the back, legs or abdomen.

The new directive comes as the two-year anniversary approaches of the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died Oct. 14, 2007 at Vancouver International Airport.

Taser International is giving its closing submissions this week at the public inquiry headed by retired B.C. judge Thomas Braidwood, who is looking into the circumstances of Dziekanski's death.

Dziekanski, who was approached by four RCMP officers, died within minutes after he was jolted by an RCMP Taser.

A spokesman for the RCMP headquarters in Ottawa Friday said a directive has been sent out to officers to immediately avoid targeting a suspect's chest and head.

Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Joe Bosie said Sunday that officers received a memo about the new policies last week.

"It makes sense," said Bosie. "Those probes or needles are very sharp and if you were to discharge a Taser in or above the heart area like the neck or eyes it could cause serious injury."

While the latest Tasers are wireless, most others include barbed darts attached to wires that strike the victim, before delivering an electric jolt.

Toronto police had no comment on the new policy, saying a spokesperson would not be available to discuss the matter until Tuesday.

Spokespersons for York, Peel and Durham regional police were also unavailable to discuss the matter.

Vancouver police spokesman Const. Lindsey Houghton said Sunday the municipal force has also received the new directive from Taser International.

"We immediately began advising and training officers to change where they aim from upper back or upper chest to lower centre of mass per the bulletin," he said.

The Calgary and Winnipeg police forces have also advised their officers to lower their aim when using the Taser.

Taser International has strenuously denied at the public inquiry that the weapon was the direct cause of Dziekanski's death.

The 40-year-old Dziekanski was on his first-ever flight from Poland to join his mother in Kamloops, B.C. when he was left lost and wandering at the airport for nearly 10 hours.

Police were summoned after a 911 call of reports that a distraught man was throwing furniture around the arrivals lounge. Within 30 seconds of the RCMP surrounding Dziekanski, the weapon was deployed and fired five times, leaving Dziekanski writhing in agony on the ground.

In its training bulletin, the company said that by avoiding the chest area, it lessens the controversy about whether the jolts do or do not affect the heart.

The risk of a cardiac arrest after the weapon was deployed was "extremely low," according to the company.

While Taser International noted sudden cardiac arrests can occur on "golf courses, in airports" or anywhere, the involvement of a Taser discharge at around the same time would place police officers and the company in a "difficult situation to ascertain what role, if any," the Taser played, according to the bulletin.

B.C. Civil Liberties executive director David Eby said Sunday the weapon should be banned and that changing the targeted area on where to aim is not enough.

"We are disappointed that police have to wait for the company to issue a directive before making these changes," said Eby. "Admittedly that is a step towards limiting the use, but it's hard to imagine in what situation it makes sense to aim at a suspect's back."

In 2004, Robert Wayne Bagnell, 44, died after Vancouver police used a Taser on him, sending two electrical shocks to his chest. His death was later cited as restraint-associated cardiac arrest due to acute cocaine intoxication.

Bagnell's sister, Patti Gillman of Belleville, Ont., has since become an advocate against the use of Tasers by police.

"Finally this is an acknowledgment from Taser that the weapon isn't as safe as they've been claiming," she said Sunday. "Hopefully this will make police even more skeptical about using Tasers."

Amnesty International says 330 people died in the United States after being jolted by stun guns between June 2001 and late 2008. In Canada, the human rights watchdog says at least 26 such deaths occurred from 2003 to 2008.

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