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Friday, October 09, 2009

Calgary officers told not to aim Taser at suspects' chests

CALGARY - Calgary police officers will no longer aim their Tasers at a suspect's chest when possible, following new guidelines issued by the weapons manufacturer.

In a Sept. 30 bulletin, Taser International called on users to avoid "chest shots when possible" and instead aim for the abdomen or lower when deploying the weapon to avoid "the controversy about whether(Tasers) do or do not affect the human heart."

The manufacturer says the risk of a heart attack in connection with a Taser discharge is low, but if it happened after the weapon hit the chest area, it would place police and the company in the "difficult situation" of trying to determine what role, if any, the weapon had on the cardiac arrest.

In the bulletin, Taser International instructed users to aim for the abdomen, back or legs.

Calgary police Chief Rick Hanson sent a memo to the rank-and-file Wednesday, announcing the change to targeting.

"Clearly there has been more and more medical research that has been conducted that has caused a change in this target," he said.

There are no plans to stop the use of the energy weapon, he said.

"Absolutely, we will continue to use it as a tool because it's incredibly effective when dealing with highly combative or disturbed individuals."

The president of the Alberta Civil Liberties Association said Taser's bulletin acknowledges the weapons may cause serious injuries.

"We have to recognize these are dangerous weapons," Stephen Jenuth said. "We know electrical currents can stop hearts. Medical opinion is pretty unanimous on that."

Jenuth said he believes police should not be armed with Tasers, saying they should only be used in circumstances where a life is at risk.

Last year, Calgary officers used their Tasers 87 times--deploying the weapon 73 times and using only the laser illumination to gain compliance 14 times.

So far this year, the weapons have been used 69 times, 45 of those were deployments, said field training coordinator Staff Sgt. Chris Butler.

Butler said officers will aim for the diaphragm or lower whenever possible from this point forward.

"In circumstances where members have discretionary time and they have time to intentionally target . . . they should take all possible measures they can to avoid intentionally targeting the chest area,"

However, Butler said, where the probes land--even if carefully aimed -- is often beyond the control of the officer considering offenders are moving at the time a Taser is deployed.

"Even if the officer's intent is to put the laser dot on the abdomen and fire the Taser, by the time the darts actually impact the subject's body, it could be in a different position," Butler said.

Meanwhile, the province has completed testing on all of the Tasers used by municipal forces in Alberta.

In the second round of tests, 970 of the weapons were examined to see if they were meeting manufacturer's specifications. Of those, 88 -- about nine per cent--were operating outside of specifications, said Solicitor General spokeswoman Michelle Davio.

In the first round of testing, about 12 per cent of the weapons failed to operate as specified.

Those found not to comply have been returned to police departments who will decide to get rid of the weapons or fix them.

If they choose to repair the Tasers, they will have to be retested before being put back into use, Davio said.

The province is continuing to work on ongoing testing protocols for the weapons.

Rules announced in July stipulate all Tasers used by police in the province, including RCMP, will have to be tested yearly.

The regulations also restrict police in Alberta to using Tasers only when there is a "real likelihood of injury" to a person being arrested, a bystander or an officer.

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