Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Taser controls, new police policies will save lives

VICTORIA - The probe of Tasers in B.C. has already paid off with an interim report that recommends tougher controls on the use of the high-tech stun guns.
Tasers were hailed as a great tool for police when they were introduced in 1998. The concept was great - a weapon that shoots darts that zap dangerous suspects with electricity, making them easy to subdue. Police would have one more alternative to shooting suspects, and both they and the person being arrested would be safer.
But in the last 12 months four deaths in the province have been associated with Taser use, in Prince George, Burnaby and Vancouver. Added to reports of almost 50 deaths in the U.S. in the last three years, the cases raised troubling questions.
The police complaints' commissioner set out to answer them, asking Victoria Police Chief Paul Battershill to head up a review.
His interim report, released Wednesday, offers practical recommendations that would allow police to continue using Tasers while decreasing the risk.
And just as importantly, the report calls on police to make changes that could save lives even in cases where Tasers aren't used.
It's a balanced, thorough review of the evidence around Tasers.
The report concludes the weapons are still useful as an intermediate weapon for police. They can disable suspects from a distance - something not possible with pepper spray or clubs - and they can allow an end to a conflict before deadly force is needed.
But it also found that Tasers haven't been treated with the required seriousness.
That's not surprising. The manufacturer's pitch has always been that the weapons pose no health risk; that claim is now being widely questioned around the world.
The report cites "significant inconsistencies" across B.C. in training police to use the weapons. A standard training course on Taser use should be developed, the report says, and all police should receive the training.
It also calls for mandatory reporting any time a Taser is used. That's routine when a gun is used, but not all police forces in B.C. require similar follow-up. Even when the policy is in place, police may not be following it, the report found.
Police should also quit buying the Taser originally introduced in the province, and switch to a less powerful model that provides a greater margin of safety.
All the recommendations make sense. The two requiring reporting and training should have been in place from the beginning, when the former NDP government approved the weapons.
But the report's biggest impact may come from two recommendations that are only partly related to Taser use.
Across B.C., and North America, people captured and restrained by police have been dying. The common scenario is a frenzied, unreasonable suspect, often on cocaine or mentally ill, who is captured, restrained, appears to be calmer and then stops breathing. (Cocaine was a common factor in the cases of all four people who have died after Taser use in B.C.)
The condition is called "excited delirium," and police aren't aware enough of the risks of death, the report found, again recommending a standardized training program. "Although relatively rare, changes in pattern of drug abuse make it likely officers will encounter victims of excited delirium more frequently," the report warns.
The risk of death also appears to be increased by the way in which the people are restrained. The report calls for a ban on use of the "maximal restraint position," where hands and ankles are bound behind the suspect's back and he lies on his chest, saying it may be linked to needless deaths.
Adopting both recommendations will save lives. The Battershill report looked at 22 restraint-related deaths investigated by B.C. coroners between 1990 and 2003. It found a "disturbing familiarity" in the cases. The victim is generally on drugs and acting bizarrely. A violent struggle takes place, without any obvious injuries. Police use restraints, and the person dies.
They were deaths that didn't need to happen.
The recommendations on restraint, and Taser use, should be adopted immediately.
Footnote: Battershill is continuing his investigation of the death of Robert Bagnell, who died in Vancouver after being shot with a Taser. He released the interim report because there was an "urgent need" to get the recommendations out to police, Battershill said.

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