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Saturday, October 10, 2009

EDITORIAL: Curb use of tasers

October 10, 2009
EDITORIAL, Winnipeg Free Press

For many years police forces in Canada, including the Winnipeg Police Service, rebuffed concerns the Taser could kill people, relying on the manufacturer's assurances the device was a safe way to instantaneously incapacitate a suspect. Police forces lost that assurance last week when TASER International revised its instructions on the use of the device, cautioning police not to aim for a suspect's chest.

The revision restricting police officers to hitting suspects with the Taser on the stomach, legs or in the back was the first flinch by a manufacturer that for many years rebuffed concerns the weapon was linked to deaths of those jolted by the gun.

But TASER International insists it is standing behind years of evidence that the stun gun is safe. The new instructions, the company's webpage states, will avoid "controversy" raised by more recent research that indicates hitting a person across the chest can cause the heart to race. Those contrary studies would make it difficult to prove the gun had no role in any such incident, it says.

The manufacturer's move to limit its legal liability prompted police forces across Canada, including the Winnipeg Police Service, immediately to change their stun-gun use policies. That is a welcome development, as it has become clear the evidence on the Taser's effects is still being collected, alongside the rising frequency which the stun gun is used by all police forces.

The rapid compliance with TASER's new advice by the Winnipeg Police Service stands in stark contrast to the fact the force is still studying, after three months, the interim report issued by the Braidwood inquiry. Former judge Thomas Braidwood looked at broader medical evidence, in context with the actions of the RCMP at the Vancouver airport in 2007, where Polish traveller Robert Dzienkanski died after being repeatedly stunned by the Taser. Among the recommendations, Mr. Braidwood advised that police officers use the stun gun only when a person is causing bodily harm, or an officer has reason to believe harm is imminent.

TASER's new caveat to its once iron-clad claims of product safety indicates that it is making room for the possibility the stun gun's effect on people of varying health status and in dynamic circumstances needs further review. That fact should prompt Police Chief Keith McCaskill to adopt Mr. Braidwood's sage advice and curb Taser use by the officers.

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