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Monday, March 21, 2011

More thought, less force - Cops defend Tasers; mental-health official has doubts

March 21, 2011
Gabrielle Giroday, Winnipeg Free Press

Local police used their Tasers some 61 times last year, according to a record obtained by the Free Press.

More than three years after Robert Dziekanski died after RCMP officers stunned him in a Vancouver airport, the use of the weapon is still under scrutiny.

Police say stun guns help officers save lives, but Nicole Chammartin, the Canadian Mental Health Association's Winnipeg region executive director, says she's concerned police can improperly turn to stun guns instead of other crisis-intervention techniques.

She'd like to see more training of police in non-violent crisis-intervention techniques instead of using Tasers.

"In the past, I think the police services had to use their heads a lot more in terms of how to intervene and how to use communication skills, and I think more and more, we're seeing less of that and more use of Tasers and other levels of force," she said.

The Winnipeg Police Service has about 203 Taser X26s, according to a record obtained through a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) request.

RCMP D Division also has 237 stun guns, called "conducted-energy weapons," or CEWs, according to figures provided last week by the Mounties.

Chammartin said people with mental-health issues are more likely to encounter stigmas and are more likely to deal with police.

"Because (Tasers) are seen as non-lethal, our concern would be that the police are going to, in their busy lives, start to more and more rely on that, as opposed to standard non-violent crisis techniques," she said.

Sgt. Jason Anderson of the Winnipeg Police Service said Tasers are used in a "minute" amount of calls. He estimated about 160 Tasers are available for officers to use and about 40 are in for servicing, training purposes, independent testing or repairs.

"A Taser offers some significant tactical advantages for us that we don't necessarily have with our other weapons," Anderson said.

"So if we didn't have a Taser, that tactical advantage is taken away from us, and I would guess that we would see a significant increase in injuries to officers, bad guys, and just the regular public.

"I have no doubt in my mind that without a Taser, there are some incidents that might end even in death without the Taser there."

Anderson said that for officers, "our first option is always talking.

"These incidents happen so fast, so the goal with the Taser and any of our weapons is to get the situation dealt with as quickly as possible, trying to minimize the risk of injury to everybody," he said.

The Taser issue will come under further scrutiny after an inquest is held into the death of a Winnipeg teenager after he was stunned in a William Avenue back alley.

The family of 17-year-old Michael Langan has filed a lawsuit against members of the Winnipeg Police Service and Taser International in regard to his death in July 2008 after he was stunned by police pursuing him.

An autopsy report said Langan died of "cardiac arrhythmia (ventricular fibrillation) due to deployment of electronic control device," but noted Langan had a heart abnormality that contributed to his death, as did running from police. Police said they warned Langan repeatedly to put down a knife he was brandishing. Taser International filed a statement of defence that strongly rejected his death was due to their product.

How often are police using Tasers?

Police have used Tasers six times so far this year (as of Feb. 14)

Police dispatched to 162,678 calls for service, used Tasers 61 times2009
Police dispatched to 162,394 calls for service, used Tasers 73 times 2008
Police dispatched to 154,097 calls for service, used Tasers 68 times

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