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Thursday, October 18, 2012

TASER: The Whole Story

October, 15, 2012

Dear Zofia,

In memory of Robert and all those who have lost their lives proximal to a TASER.  A promise not forgotten.

Dr. Mike Webster’s Presentation to:
Special Committee to Inquire into the Use of Conducted Energy Weapons
and to Audit Selected Police Complaints
Monday, October 15, from 10:45 to 11:30 a.m.
Douglas Fir Committee Room, Room 226, Parliament Buildings.


I would like to thank the committee for inviting me here today. I am a Registered Psychologist (in private practice) that has worked in the area of police psychology for over 30 years. I completed basic police training at the RCMP Training Academy (Depot Division) in 1988. I specialize in the area of crisis management and have experience in the application of force across a broad array of police tasks including: hostage/barricade incidents; kidnappings; incidents of public disorder; and crisis intervention. I have been instrumental in the creation and delivery of crisis intervention, crisis negotiation, and incident command courses from the Canadian Police College (Ottawa, Ontario) to the B.C. Police Academy (New Westminster, B.C.). I have been an adjunct lecturer at the FBI Training Academy. I have consulted internationally and with several law enforcement agencies including: Colombia, Mexico, Singapore, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary, Iceland, Sweden, Australia, and Europol. I have consulted operationally at a variety of incidents including: the old BC Penitentiary (hostage takings); Waco, Texas; Gustafsen Lake, B.C.; Jordan, Montana; Ft. Davis, Texas; the G8; the G20; Apex Alpine; and numerous kidnappings from Iraq to Indonesia, and Kashmir to Colombia. I am familiar with both Use of Force Models; the RCMP’s Integrated Model of Incident Management and the National Use of Force Framework. I provided testimony at both phases of the Braidwood Commission of Inquiries.

I assume that your committee invited me here today to comment on my experience in the implementation of Justice Braidwood’s recommendations in the areas of crisis intervention and training; as I have noted, areas of specialty and experience for me. As I was not invited to be a part of that implementation process, I can only make general comment on what has been done by others. I am more than willing to answer any questions you may have in those areas of police work following my presentation. However, as it appears that electro-shock weapons (ESWs) are here to stay, and in order to assist in an informed discussion, and the formulation of future public policy, I would like to address in the meantime a couple of critical concerns. I believe your committee, and the public should be advised of not only recent TASER-related science but also some of the more pertinent contemporary and historical concerns associated with the TASER’s place in Canadian law enforcement. In providing this information I hope to prevent the next generation technology from being so easily accepted and under such compromised circumstances.


The BC Government failed its citizens when TASER technology was introduced to the Province. As someone who is trained to construct, conduct, and be critical of research, I was taken aback last week to hear the Assistant Deputy Minister and Director of Police Services cavalierly gloss over the inadequate and flawed process used to approve the use of TASERs in this Province. Those who appreciate the scientific method prefer to regard that process as amateurish, at best, and replete with misrepresentations provided by what appears to have been a seriously compromised policeman/project manager. I would like to elaborate. There was not enough rigorous science applied by the manufacturer to guarantee the safety of the weapon. TASERs were anecdotally not scientifically developed. Universally, public officials failed to verify the safety claims being made by the company and its spokespersons. TASERs were rushed into service by decision makers and police in B.C. and throughout Canada in 1999. The weapon has caused problems for the public and the manufacturer. For example, TASER International is presently engaged in damage control by offering trade-ins to “recall” older, more powerful weapons. (Are you aware that the M-26 model is powered at 26-Watts, the next generation model the X-26 is lower powered, and the newest model the X2 will be even lower? This begs the question as to why the manufacturer would lower the power of the weapon without alerting law enforcement first and providing some explanation). It appears that with the lack of regular and rigorous peer reviewed independent measurement, no policeperson could be sure of the amount of current being emitted from the weapon at any given deployment; for unlike breathalysers, defibrillators, and radar guns, the police do not routinely measure the output of their TASERs.

The CBC had fifty randomly chosen police TASERs tested independently in a lab in Chicago in 2008. They discovered that not all TASERs perform in the same way, as reflected in their “output variance”. Electro-shock weapons manufacturers readily admit that the output of these devices can vary due to factors beyond their control.

According to the Canadian blog “Truth-Not-Tasers”, that has been tracking the death toll, approximately 750 people have died proximal to TASER use in North America since the higher-powered M-26 was introduced. The lower powered 5-Watt system was what was field tested in Canada, by the Victoria Police Department in 1999, in the “field study” mentioned by Mr. Pecknold. The policeman in charge initially said he had concerns about the new, soon-to-be-available higher powered 26-Watt weapons and that more research was needed before he could recommend them. Yet a few months later this was exactly the model of TASER that his police department purchased. In his final report (“An Independent Evaluation of Conducted Energy Weapons”) there was no evidence that the 26-Watt system had ever been subjected to any controlled research. Yet, the higher powered 26-Watt system is what our police services decided to buy and deploy. The medical safety studies promised by this policeman/project manager were never produced. Contrary to Mr. Pecknold’s statement of last week, the people of BC received no medical evidence assuring them of the safety of TASERs prior to them being brought into service.

Despite the glaring omissions of the 26-Watt system, and safety concerns about it in his final report, this same Victoria policeman wrote in both of his reports that TASERs had been “over-studied”. In fact, this was not true. It is widely known that TASER spent only $14,000 in research and development when it shocked a single pig in 1996 to develop the waveform and then 5 dogs in 1999 to further test the weapon. The results of these tests were not published, or reviewed, by third party peers. These results are not even included in TASER International’s own Medical Compendium.

The higher powered technology was never subjected to independent, impartial, rigorous research prior to being deployed throughout Canada. The policeman who claimed that TASERs were “medically safe”, not being scientifically or medically trained, was not qualified to make such a judgement.

This same policeman claimed that TASERs met electrical safety standards as set by the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) and the International Electro-technical Commission (IEC). (The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) was not mentioned). This policeman’s claim of electrical safety was untrue because the devices have never been tested by these safety standards bodies. You will note that TASERs do not bear certification marks from any of these organizations, as other electrical products sold, and used, in Canada must. The fact is, the Canadian public still has an untested, unregulated electrical device in the hands of police; this, in violation of the Electrical Safety Standards Act, that says no electrical devices are to be sold or used without a proper certification mark. The TASER carries no such mark, even though it emits electrical current into the body. Remarkably this policeman/project manager’s report, replete with what appear to be false claims, was vetted by TASER International and the CPRC; and neither saw fit to make any amendments. Today these claims are no longer made.

Although somewhat technical, it is well to recognize that the dangers lie in the peaks of the current, even though TASER International prefers to use “averages” in its description of the weapon’s electrical characteristics. It is medically uncontroversial that electrical currents between 70 – 100 milliamps can kill. Following TASER International’s original specification sheets, the peak currents of the M-26 and X-26 models are obscured in average calculations. These weapons, at peak current, that is 162 and 151 milliamps respectively, are powerful enough to kill as suggested by Commissioner Braidwood at the conclusion of his Commission of Inquiries. Moreover, according to the IEC-479 standard, shocks of 151 to 162 milliamps over five seconds can stimulate the heart adversely in 50% of the population that receives the shock. Today the electrical output of these weapons does not appear in the manufacturer’s product specification sheets.
This same Victoria Police Department member was then seconded to manage the joint (RCMP and CPRC) “Conducted Energy Weapons Evaluation Project”. It was not a study into health and safety effects, as one may have hoped, but simply a cataloging of the effects of the harsh Canadian winter on the functioning of the weapons.

It was later discovered and reported by the Vancouver Sun, that this policeman had an undisclosed financial relationship with TASER International. This was revealed when he testified at a wrongful death lawsuit in 2005. The family of Robert Bagnell was suing the Vancouver Police Department after Mr. Bagnell was shocked multiple times and died in the downtown east side.

The policeman in question was asked to testify as he had been brought over from Victoria by the Vancouver Police Department as an “independent” investigator into Mr. Bagnell’s death. When pressed by lawyer Cameron Ward, the policeman admitted he had done undisclosed freelance work for TASER International.

On the surface it appears that this policeman, at some point in 2000, tasked with evaluating the technology for BC (and ultimately the rest of Canada), was quietly being given stock in TASER International while he lead Master Taser Trainer Courses for the manufacturer with other police services. TASER International Chairman Tom Smith told a federal all-party subcommittee, looking into TASER stock options, and televised nation-wide on the Parliamentary channel, that stock options were given to this officer for designing a holster. (Ironically, the holster in question was for the M-26 model, the very weapon this officer claimed to be uncertain of). There are those, who understand the objectivity of the scientific method, who would describe the receipt of payment, in whole or in kind, from TASER International, while evaluating the safety of its products for the BC Government as a hopeless conflict of interest. Ujjal Dosanjh, who had given the Victoria Police Department permission to field test the 5-Watt system in 1999, told CTV News that he felt he had been deceived. He was concerned that the policeman, in question, had failed to disclose his relationship with TASER International and, worse still, that false claims were made in the various versions of his so-called “independent evaluation”. This policeman remains on the job today with the Victoria Police Department and has never been held accountable by decision makers for making these misrepresentations. Mr. Dosanjh has said that if he knew then what he knows now, he would never have given TASERs the go-ahead.

Also related to the absence of independent, scientific evidence, American authorities allowed TASERs to be deployed despite significant “data gaps”, and other concerns raised in three key US government reports. Canadian law enforcement was unaware of, or worse ignored, these over sights. One of these critical oversights involved not questioning, TASER International for placing a conformity mark on their M-26 brochure. This mark (i.e. CE) is used to indicate conformity with standards necessary for a product to enter the European Economic Area. The European Community did not have, nor even have today, any standard for electrical safety that would apply to the M26 ADVANCED TASER. In sum, there was a glaring lack of due diligence undertaken by authorities when these weapons were first introduced. As a result, approximately eight people have died in British Columbia proximal to their use.

Times Colonist reporter Rob Shaw has said that your Special Committee will be considering “the scientific research into the medical risks to persons against whom conducted energy weapons are deployed”. This is encouraging as there is much that even Commissioner Braidwood did not uncover. Not one Canadian government agency or department including Health Canada, Public Safety Canada or the RCMP bothered to verify TASER International’s medical and safety claims. The RCMP even used photo-copied TASER promotional information in its first TASER report in 2000.Remarkably, law enforcement in Canada is still able to use TASERs in “probe mode”, when there is no electrical safety standard for invasive shocks; that is, electrical current introduced below the skin.

One Vancouver journalist approached the IEC, the UL, and the CSA and learned that the standard they use to measure safety thresholds is for shocks on the skin, not subcutaneous shocks. All these laboratories assert that we know so little about the effects of electricity below the skin they could not, in good faith, certify these weapons with one of their safety marks; like you find on your electric shaver, toaster, or hair dryer.

Contrary to Dr. Lu’s assertion, last week before this committee, there has been important TASER related research since 2008. Regarding cardiac risks, a study published this year, in the Journal of Circulation, by Dr. Douglas P. Zipes, cardiologist and professor emeritus at Indiana University, clearly demonstrates that the electric shock delivered to the chest by a Taser can lead to cardiac arrest and sudden death. “This is no longer arguable”, said Dr. Byron Lee, a cardiologist and director of the electrophysiology laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco. “This is a scientific fact”. With respect, the question before your committee should now focus on whether the risk of sudden death from a TASER shock is low enough to warrant wide spread use of the weapon by police in British Columbia.

It seems at this point governments and/or police decision makers don’t really want to know, or admit, they made grave errors by not adequately verifying TASER International’s safety claims. Presently in the U.S., courts are being asked to consider for the first time, police use of TASERs. No longer are TASER cases based strictly upon product liability; the cases now before the courts are different. These cases challenge the police persons who deployed the weapon. The question, in light of current evidence, is now “when is electrical force excessive force?” Appellate Judge Mary Schroeder has noted, “One could argue that the use of painful, permanently scarring weaponry on non-threatening individuals, who were not trying to escape, should have been known to be excessive by an informed police officer”. This may give you some insight into the “major and consistent decrease” in TASER use mentioned by the Deputy Minister last week before this committee. It is only a matter of time before cases of this nature work their way into the Canadian legal experience.

In contrast to Dr. Lu’s statement that “. . . TASERs are generally shown to be relatively safe”, TASER International’s own Voluntary Exposure and Liability Release Form includes a long list of alarming known and possible side effects that contradict its original safety claims and confirms what critics have been saying for over a decade. Here are only a few of those known and possible side effects. The company cautions that the weapons ”. . . have 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’ beliefs that the TASER can capture the heart and alter its rhythms in healthy adults. TASER International then goes on to shift the responsibility for their weapons onto the user 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 its customers of its product’s safety before it went to, or even after it was on the market?

A final concern that should be of interest to this committee involves the TASER tester, “Verus One”, being put forward by the B.C. Police Services. Police Services has accepted a test protocol developed by Andy Adler of Carlton University, Ottawa’s MPB Electronics, and Datrends Systems of Richmond, B.C., despite the authors themselves admitting this protocol is far from comprehensive or independent.

The Verus One actually tests to determine whether an ESW is operating within TASER International’s specifications. The Verus One does not determine the electrical energy delivered into a subject. The 600 Ohms resistance value being used in the formula by the B.C. Police Services actually comes from TASER International’s chief engineer Max Nerheim via Adler et.al. According to a study by the American Heart Association (AHA) the resistance for a trans-thoracic shock could be as low as 25 Ohms. So the suggested 600 Ohms indicates a base resistance that would appear to be an artificially high value that does not necessarily reflect the reality of all subjects. When CBC did it’s testing in 2008 and found a 12 percent failure rate, it used a previous test protocol employing 250 Ohms of resistance, which it got from TASER International. The company has since recommended raising the resistance level to 600 Ohms but, I have found no literature from the manufacturer that has offered the scientific references or rationale for doing so.

Several significant considerations should be pointed out concerning the Verus One:

1. It does not determine electrical safety of ESWs

2. It only tests to determine whether ESWs are “in tolerance” or “out of tolerance”.

3. A test result of “in tolerance” does not indicate or imply that injury or death will not result from use of the tested ESW, or that the tested ESW will incapacitate a person against whom the ESW may be deployed.

4. It does not measure the electrical energy delivered into a body (i.e. invasive shocks).

5. It also does not disclose scientific references or rationale as to why 600 Ohms is identified as the measurement base vs. a range of resistances.

In closing it is worth mentioning that the IEC and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US are presently developing a standardized method of measurement for ESWs. This standard will result in the IEC 62792 ESW measurement method. Moreover, it is my understanding that no Canadian law enforcement agencies have even bothered to investigate, nor has Datrend disclosed the issue of Intellectual Property Rights regarding “Verus One”. This is significant as a lack of Intellectual Property Rights could cost Canadian law enforcement, and the Canadian taxpayer, a significant amount of money due to Intellectual Property and licensing issues. Based upon these concluding statements, I would strongly urge care and caution be exercised before purchasing any ESW analyzer.

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