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Monday, May 02, 2011

Incompetence or Wilful Neglect?

by Dr. Michael Webster, Police Psychologist

Dr. Webster is a Canadian police psychologist with more than 30 years' experience in police crises and training. He has managed hostage-takings and kidnappings and trained or worked with Vancouver police, RCMP, Europol, the FBI and police in Mexico, Colombia and Australia.

Incompetence or Wilful Neglect?

In my opinion, the discussion around whether or not the RCMP should have deployed a TASER on an 11 year old child and under what conditions such an act would be permissible puts the cart before the horse. The fact is that those RCMP members who carry TASERs are carrying question marks on their duty belts. The weapon is uncertified and unregulated. It has never been evaluated by the Canadian Standards Association or any other electrical safety standards body anywhere in the world. Further, its health and safety effects have never been subjected to rigorous, independent and impartial research. I find it remarkable that RCMP decision makers and its insurers have not backed away from this weapon, especially in light of recent admissions by Taser International.

Is this incompetence or just wilful neglect?

The incident in Prince George recalls a number of historic issues around the TASER that have, never been addressed by RCMP management. In the 1990’s the RCMP considered using the TASER, and conducted pilot projects focused on gathering the requisite data upon which to make an informed decision. Looking back, the assistance of qualified specialists should have been sought. The resulting report was plagued by several major limitations including an incomplete review of the pertinent literature, an over-reliance on information supplied by Taser International, too much emphasis placed upon anecdotal information from police persons, and limited outside consultation. There was no consultation with national medical or mental health associations, or government agencies like Health Canada, which has a product safety lab.

Moreover, the Canadian public and its law enforcement community were misled by the Victoria police officer who wrote the “Independent Evaluation of Conducted Energy Weapons” in 2000. That report for the Canadian Police Research Centre (CPRC), was not independent. This officer accepted stock options from Taser International and was moonlighting as a TASER trainer, while tasked with what was supposed to be an impartial evaluation. He told the public that an abundance of medical research proved the safety of the weapon, and that it met safety standards set by the International Electrotechnical Commission and the Underwriters Laboratory. Neither of these statements was true. So the weapon entered Canada on the basis of a CPRC study best described as “amateurish”, and with misrepresentations supplied by a seriously compromised police officer. This same man, with his ongoing undisclosed financial relationship with the manufacturer, became manager of the joint CPRC/RCMP TASER Evaluation Project in 2002. It evaluated the effectiveness of TASERs in Canadian weather, but not their safety on human health. This now restricted report was used to justify the wider deployment of TASERs to police forces across Canada.

Is it incompetence or just wilful neglect that leads the RCMP to ignore this?

Taser International recently (2010.05.01) issued a new training manual for the X26 TASER. It includes a long list of alarming risks and warnings which contradicts its original safety claims and confirms what critics have been saying for over a decade. Here are only a few of these warnings. The company cautions that the weapon “has not been scientifically tested on pregnant women, the infirm, the elderly, small children, and low body mass persons . . . the use on these individuals could increase the risk of death or serious injury”. The company goes on to admit that the TASER “can produce physiologic or metabolic effects, which include changes in: acidosis, adrenergic states, blood pressure . . . heart rate and rhythm . . .” With this statement Taser International confirms experts’ belief that the TASER can capture the heart and alter it’s rhythms in healthy adults. Obviously the risk is even higher when a Taser is used on a child.

Taser International abdicates responsibility for its own weapon by recommending that “all TASER . . . users conduct their own research, analysis, and evaluation”. Wouldn’t you think a manufacturer would want to be able to assure the public of its product’s safety before it went to market? Are you conducting research, analysis, and evaluation on the medications you use, or was this done by the drug company before they brought their product to the marketplace?

Is the RCMP’s lack of response to these unsettling admissions from Taser International incompetence or just wilful neglect?

If flawed pilot projects, huge data gaps, increasing deaths proximal to use, and warnings and risks attended the use of a particular drug, do you think the government would step in to protect its citizens? We are fast approaching the time when an autonomous federal government, free from RCMP influence (the Commissioner was appointed by the Prime Minister and holds Deputy Minister status), will need to step in and protect the welfare of its citizens from their own misguided and misinformed national police force. The inclusion of intermediate weapons like sound cannons, laser beams, and TASERs in the police tool box is a public policy issue. These decisions cannot be left to the police or the (so-called) public safety experts like Taser International. The police are scientifically unsophisticated and companies like Taser International are in the business of aggressively marketing their products. A public advisory board, set up by the federal government, complete with all the requisite experts is necessary to assess both the costs and the benefits of the latest technological offerings.

And if the government fails to protect its citizens in this manner is it incompetence or just wilful neglect?

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