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Saturday, October 17, 2009

EDITORIAL: New Taser directives deserve grace period, but banning may be way to go

October 17, 2009

After proclaiming the safety of its stun gun product for years, Taser International, it seems, is finally accepting that its weapon can have lethal consequences.

It has issued a directive that officers should not aim the weapon at a targeted person's chest in order to avoid impact to the heart. As a result, police forces across Canada have begun to change their policies concerning use of the Taser.

The change is all well and good, but I think we will have to wait a while to see how much of a difference it will make in cutting back the death toll.

In a new training bulletin Taser International said it had lowered the recommended point of aim from centre of mass to lower centre of mass for front shots and that police officers should now target the back, legs or abdomen.

The company seems to be saying that aim is what will now count.

I believe that can be taken into account, all right, but the most important aspect will still be how police approach the use of the Taser, a conducted energy device which sends out a jolt of electricity through the barbs that strike a target.

Will some officers still be as indiscriminate with its use as they were in the case of Robert Dziekanski, who was Tasered by RCMP after he had become distraught when he was unable to make contact with his mother, whom he had come to visit, after he arrived at Vancouver International Airport.

Receiving reports that a man, who apparently couldn't speak English, was throwing furniture around, four RCMP officers attended and within 30 seconds of their arrival deployed the Taser. They zapped Dziekanski five times, leaving him writhing in agony on the floor with death following.

I said in a column on Nov. 8, 2008, that I thought it was incumbent on us to provide and allow police the use of the best equipment available. However, even though I saw the merits of the Taser as a police tool I couldn't escape the nagging thought that something had been going wrong, very wrong.

The Dziekanski case was a prime example.

Retired Judge Thomas Braidwood, appointed by the B. C. government to examine municipal police forces' use of the weapon after Dziekanski's death, slammed the government and B. C. police for not properly studying the potential dangers of Tasers and not training officers adequately in their use.

One of his key recommendations was to raise the threshold for using a Taser from "active resistance" to an officer suffering bodily harm or being threatened with imminent bodily harm..

The active-resistance standard in the province was open to broad interpretation and the discretion of officers.

For example, if a person suspected of not paying a Sky Train fare was told by a transit police officer, "Come here," then turned to walk away, that, according to a story in a Vancouver paper, was considered sufficient grounds for a Taser to be deployed.

That, of course, is ridiculous.

Police forces have upgraded their policies since Braidwood's initial report but I am afraid that no matter what policy is laid down and how strongly it is worded, the use of the Taser will still be decided by the officer or officers on the scene. Some, no matter the policy, will still be prepared to use it far quicker than will others.

I also wonder just how accurate police will be with the Taser under the new directive. Will they be able to pinpoint the abdomen, arm or leg? In regard to zapping the person in the back, I suspect this would only happen when there are enough officers present to surround the suspect and if that is the case, surely they could take the target down without using the Taser.

B. C. Civil Liberties executive director David Eby says 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," he said. "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."

Amnesty International says from 2003 to 2008, 26 people died in Canada after being jolted by stun guns. The total in the United States was 330 between 2001 and 2008.

These totals had not gone unnoticed by former city police officer Ken Slewidge, who has been attempting to market an alternative weapon, a pepper gel officers would swipe on a target's eyes.

In an e-mail in response to my 2008 column he said police have difficulty defending the use of the Taser in situations that have alternatives.

"The entire concept of police use of force is progression through the circumstances. If the news reports of the individuals who died demonstrated that the situation was going to lead to the imminent death of someone, then for sure spray or Taser, no problem," he said.

"But police will surround a house for hours if a person is inside with a gun. Why can't the same tactic be scaled down to a person in the room that is upset? I'm sure that containment for 15 or 20 minutes would de-escalate a scene . . .

"I personally have had many wrestling matches over my 30 years that resulted in a sore back, shoulders and knees. But I would not trade these injuries for a chance to be the subject officer in a wrongful-death allegation."

I think the majority of the officers in forces across the country would agree with him.

The problem is, as I seem to keep repeating, there will be those who will still use the Taser when it isn't really required, such as in the Dziekanski case where evidence has now been brought forward that RCMP discussed using the Taser before they even got on the scene.

Slewidge said he was pleased with the Braidwood report, saying the justice understood what most Canadians have been implying to law enforcement all along, that CEDs have their place, but not in incidences other than the most serious. He said he hoped police agencies world-wide would eventually understand the logic of Braidwood's findings.

"Police agencies must realize that it is the police who need to keep taking the risk to save lives," he said in an e-mail. "Police cannot keep a rational of doing anything that may provide death to anyone, other than those individuals that fully put themselves in such a serious situation that exhausts all other options."

I'm willing to give Taser use a couple of years grace but if there is evidence at that time that it has not been brought under control, then I will be joining those, like Eby, who believe the Taser should be banned.

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