Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Taser danger demands immediate review

VICTORIA - I wrote about Tasers with some enthusiasm back in 1998, when Victoria's police force became the first in Canada to give the high-tech weapons a try.
It seemed like a great breakthrough, a weapon that shoots darts that zap dangerous suspects with electricity, making them easier to subdue. The trial seemed to be a success, and then attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh approved the Taser for use across the province.
There's still a lot to recommend the gun.
But after four Taser-linked deaths in the last 12 months in the province, it's time for an independent review of the technology, and the way it's being used.
The deaths - in Prince George, Burnaby and Vancouver - don't appear to be aberrations. Another 45 people have died in the U.S. in the last three years after being zapped with the newer, more powerful Taser models.
That wasn't supposed to be the deal. When the high-tech weapons were introduced here, the manufacturer, Taser International, claimed they were completely safe. The company continues to make the same claim.
People may die after being zapped by a Taser, but that doesn't mean it killed them, the company argues, pointing to the hundreds of police officers who have gone through the experience themselves.
But in at least three deaths, medical examiners have disagreed. A report by the British government in 2002 found the Tasers could not be classified as safe, although British police forces have begun testing the weapons. And a recent New York Times article said reporters could find no independent studies confirming the safety of the devices.
The company argues that the death rate for people shot with a Taser is no higher than the overall death rate for people taken into custody. People aren't killed by the Taser; they're killed by a high heart rate.
But 90 per cent of the people shot with a Taser are going to have a heart rate that has already gone through the roof. They are on drugs, or mentally ill, agitated, angry or frightened. They're involved in a dangerous confrontation with police, teetering on the edge of violence or suicide.
Four deaths in barely 12 months should be enough to trigger a review of the safety of Tasers, and the way they are being used in the province.
Just because they are dangerous doesn't mean they should be banned. The risk may be balanced by the number of lives that saved by giving police a useful tool.
Officers must make split-second decisions about how to respond to a dangerous person. They have to decide whether to try and restrain him physically, or at the other end of the spectrum whether to shoot him dead. Tasers have specific advantages in those situations - they can be fired from eight metres away, incapacitate most victims instantly and usually don't kill.
Other responses - like pepper spray - must be used at close range, and because they rely on pain can be shaken off by some people. And they are useless against an armed suspect whose goal is to have the police shoot him.
But B.C.'s entire approach to Taser use has been based on the idea that there is no risk from the devices. It hs been sold to police and public as a device that immobilizes without causing injury or death.
Those claims have shaped the way the devices are used, with critics arguing Tasers are being used too frequently and in cases where other methods of restraint would have been as effective and safer.
If there is a risk of death - and the evidence appears clear that there is - then our approach must change, and the rules governing use must become much more stringent.
It's time for a thorough independent review of the risks of Tasers, and the way they are being used in the province.
Footnote: Some of these questions could have been answered by an inquest into Clay Willey's death after he was shot with a Taser in Prince George more than a year ago. But the inquest won't be held until October. That kind of delay is inexcusable when answers are badly needed.

1 comment:

anishinaboy said...

Those things are powerful enough to stop a moose, which the company proudly shows on its website.