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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Letter from a Concerned Canuck

In response to this November 18th report: "Cop sues taser after riding the lightning" I received the following letter from "Concerned Canuck":

Questions- so many questions. Judging from the news of this lawsuit against Taser International, it would seem some police are finally waking up to the real risks, after dozens have suffered life-altering injuries after 'riding the lightning'? Or worse, the Tucson PD officer last week, who suffered a fatal massive heart attack a day after a Taser training exercise?

More questions- Will it take the Taser-related death of a child, a celebrity or another cop, before someone, anyone in government somewhere, agrees that a federal investigation is warranted to clear the air on how such a now legally defined 'deadly weapon' (defined as such by a recent ninth circuit court decision in North Carolina) could be introduced as a 'non-lethal police tool'. Why was the lethality not recognized by anyone a decade ago when Tasers were foisted on us by eager and in some cases compensated cops?

C'mon now - 700 people are dead after being 'tased'. Taser International's numbers game of comparing the percentage of fatalities to the number of uses, doesn't mean a thing to the families who have lost loved ones. All they know is their loved one, who was alive one minute, was dead the next. Taser's lawyers and the company's allies in the Justice, Science and Medical communities have almost always thrown it back on the victims, blaming them for bringing such unfortunate outcomes upon themselves. They cite quite rightly that many had previous health problems, were drunk, high on drugs, had mental illnesses or ran away too vigorously from their Taser-toting pursuers. Some probably were violent. But did all 700 fall into this category of the truly violent? Robert Dziekanski didn't. He was a confused but compliant traveller, newly arrived in Vancouver, who was felled by an RCMP Taser and then multi-stunned while being held down by four burly officers. Nor did Darryl Turner-- a healthy teenager in Charlotte, NC-- who was shocked twice for having a temper tantrum at his workplace. His family was awarded $10-million dollars last summer. This award came after a jury of average citizens agreed Taser International made fatal mistakes by not warning law enforcement of the real risks, after numerous opportunities to do the right thing and own up to their errors.

The company motto about 'saving life' didn't ring true for the 700.

At the heart of the Turner case is the jaw-dropping revelation that in 2006, company execs were informed by their own research scientist that a fit young volunteer suffered cardiac arrest during a training exercise. Luckily a defribrillator was on-hand and the volunteer was saved. But it proved cardiac capture was indeed possible. But instead of warning its police customers or the public of this shocking occurrence, Taser International kept silent and continued selling its products. A warning to avoid chest shots didn't come until late 2009, buried in a training bulletin. That is nearly FOUR YEARS that Taser knew of the cardiac risks, but they FAILED TO WARN. Canadian media were the first to discover and report this news about the risks of chest shots- although Taser reacted by saying they were just trying to "avoid the controversy" whenever there was an unexplained death during a Taser incident. The company had inside information- that cardiac capture was possible- but they didn't admit this. Not yet.

It was May 2010, when Taser finally released a much longer list of risks and warnings - in the fine print of another training bulletin. However there was no mention to law enforcement that the company had known since 2006 of the potential cardiac dangers. No doubt Taser International issued this list in anticipation of the Turner case coming to trial. Now when citizens are injured or die after being tased by police, the product liability belongs to law enforcement and its employers, and not where it should lie- with the manufacturer.

The Turner family was awarded the $10-million, because of Taser International's FAILURE TO WARN. Police would be well advised to read the publically-avaliable judgement in detail. As a matter of course, Taser is appealing. It is one of dozens of company-crippling wrongful death lawsuits lined up against the company. What other choice does Taser International actually have when facing such steep multi-million dollar losses? They either settle for undisclosed amounts or they appeal. It is the same thing the company is doing by counter-suing this now crippled cop, whose doctors say his back was broken from the force of a Taser shock during training. One can hear Taser's lawyers now -- perhaps the officer had a pre-existing condition of osteoporosis, which is responsible for the injuries - but not the Taser? And for God's sake, why didn't the officer read the latest waiver before he signed it, where the risks of injury and death are plainly but finely printed for all to see?

In Montpelier, Vermont, officials there appear to be aware of the rising liability risks. A prescient City Manager and a sensible Police Chief have decided that arming their officers was NOT worth losing the trust of their citizens. Was it wisened worry of the possiblity of paying out huge damages if there was any proven police misuse? And misuse is bound to happen when many officers are still convinced Tasers are "safe to use on any attacker", as the company's early promotional material stated. Much of this same propaganda made its way into the first police evaluations of the higher 26-watt technology a decade ago- and was treated as truth.

Perhaps some police were knowing collaborators, but I'd like to think most were hapless victims. So many took it: Taser hook-Taser line-and-suspect sinker. The first clue should have been the skimpy science of testing of one pig in 1996, five dogs in 1999 and several hundred young police recruits who were given half-second zaps with taped leads rather than darts with the full five second stun. Sadly law enforcement brass never bothered to verify the manufacturer's safety claims or questioned the electrical theory of operation, when Taser made the drastic leap from 5-watt weapons to 26-watt ones. Now after 700 deaths, Taser International states in the fine print of its manuals and waivers, that police are responsible for their own research! What kind of upside-down Bizarro-World are we living in, where a device that allows dangerously high current to enter the human body and is associated with hundreds of deaths, expects its customers do its own research? The pharmaceutical companies wouldn't dare do that, so why is Taser getting a free pass?

Perhaps Taser International will be brought to its senses, or at least brought back into court when its shareholders launch another class action suit for failure to disclose all known safety risks? A dozen complainants shared a $21-million dollar out-of-court settlement in 2005, to buy the silence of this small group of compassionate shareholders . In the court documents of this case, seven former employees signed affadavits and testified there were so many 'returns' - defective units being sent back - because thousands of Tasers weren't operating properly or not at all, triggers were sticking with some staying on, etc. There were SO many returns they had to rent extra warehouse space to store them all. The witnesses claimed the bodies of these returns were cut open, the defective high-voltage boards were taken out and placed into new bodies with new serial numbers - and sold out the front door as new product.

No one has ever attempted to investigate Taser for any of this, because no one in law enforcement or the Justice department is paying attention or cares to. Taser called the accusations absurd but settled with the shareholders anyway; what is absurd is paying out $21-million dollars to a dozen complainants in what has to be one of the highest nuisance suit payouts in legal history.

Given the number of deaths and injuries, one wonders if any of these defective units being re-sold as 'new' were recycled into other police departments, where some of these 700 "unintended consequences" or dozens of "training injuries" occurred? There is no way of knowing for sure, because police do not measure the output of each Taser upon receipt from the company. SO there is no benchmark for product quality or reliability set from the start. There is no way of charting degradation over time. Which means there is no way of knowing the shelf life of Tasers. How will that be determined without proper measurement?

Since Taser International has shouldered the liability risks onto police- and those who employ them- municipalities, provinces, states, and federal bodies should consider the sense of seeing these untested, unregulated weapons measured regularly. That was one of the recommendations of the Braidwood Inquiry. So far no police agencies anywhere in North America have heeded this sage advice. The RCMP has supposedly tested its fleet of 36-hundred or so BUT many of them performed outside of the safety allowables set by Taser International. But what is the peak output/body current of the Tasers involved in the 700 deaths? Who knows? Again- there are just too many unanswered questions.

A proper Justice Department investigation of how all this occurred without proper checks & balances, is needed. The many questions demand answers. There needs to be accountability for the 700 and their families. Congressional hearings might be the only way to illuminate more of the truth about how Tasers were introduced without proper oversight and substantiated by rigorous, independent research. If we're stuck with the lethal Taser, it really should only be used in the rarest of circumstances, just below the firearm, NOT as a mere compliance tool. Regular measurement using a recognized electrical safety standard would go a long way too, in insuring this Russian Roulette-style of law enforcement is kept to a duller roar.

Concerned Canuck.

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