Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Time for tougher controls on police Taser use

The bad thing isn’t necessarily that so many people are dying after being tasered by police.
What’s really worrying is that police forces - at least officially - don’t see any connection between zapping people and their almost immediate deaths.
Robert Dziekanski is the latest victim. His mother, who lives in Kamloops, worked two jobs and saved for years to bring her 40-year-old son to Canada. He flew into in Vancouver, but there were delays in getting into the terminal. She missed him at the airport.
He wandered for 10 hours, unable to get anyone to understand him. Then Dzienkanski started acting aggressively in the airport, alarming people. RCMP officers subdued him with a Taser. He died. His mother is wondering what happened.
The official police position is that Tasers are safe. But at least 17 people have died after being shocked with the devices in Canada in the last five years, six in this province. That seems more than coincidence.
And it’s significant. In B.C., police have only had to shoot more than three people in a year than once in the past decade. Officers are remarkably restrained in their use of weapons, no matter how great the personal risk.
Tasers were proposed in B.C. in 1998 as an alternative to deadly force. They were to be used when officers were ready to draw their guns.
That seemed a very good idea. Anything that gives police an alternative to shooting someone - without putting themselves at increased risk - is good.
But it’s impossible to know if that’s how the stun guns have been used in B.C. The impression is that Tasers have been used as a convenient way to subdue people.
When Victoria police studied Tasers for the B.C. Police Complaints Commissioner in 2004, they found that about one-third of the cases in which it had been used in Canada involved people who were resisting arrest - perhaps pulling an arm away from an officer, or ignoring an order. They weren’t hitting or kicking.
There’s certainly been no evidence that the RCMP had any reason to consider shooting Dziekanski. He had no weapon; there was no imminent danger in the largely empty airport. At least three RCMP officers were there to deal with one angry man.
Don’t get me wrong. Long ago, as a reporter, I did a ride-along with an RCMP officer in Alberta. She stopped a beat-up car full of men on the highway. I sat there with my notebook, wondering what I’d do if things went sideways and we were suddenly fighting five big guys. A Taser would have been reassuring.
The issue here is not the value of the weapon. It’s the need for an accurate assessment of the risks, so that the Tasers can be used to ensure police safety while not subjecting civilians to the risk of death.
Police and the manufacturer argue Tasers don’t kill. But their use has been part of a sequence of events that does. The person being zapped is generally in state of excited delirium, often due to cocaine use. They are then restrained on their stomachs, with hands and feet tied behind their backs. And then they stop breathing and die.
The 2004 report made several recommendations around police training and the need for mandatory reporting anytime a Taser is used. It called for specific training for all officers in excited delirium and an end to “maximum restraint” positions that sees suspects hogtied on their stomachs.
Some of the recommendations have been adopted; others are still not in place. But the continuing toll be taken by Taser use indicates that more needs to be done.
And the greatest concern remains the reluctance of police to acknowledge the risks or that Tasers can kill.
When people are belligerent or violent, there is no easy solution for police. All the alternatives, from pepper spray to baton to talking, carry risks.
But Tasers have proven particularly dangerous. It’s time to ensure their use is treated almost as seriously as discharging a gun in the line of duty.
Footnote: The Dzienkanski case raises once again another problem. The investigation into his death is being conducted by the RCMP, just as the force investigated its officer’s actions when Ian Bush was shot and killed inside the Houston RCMP detachment. The public interest demands an independent investigation.


Erik Abbink said...

"The person being zapped is generally in state of excited delirium, often due to cocaine use. They are then restrained on their stomachs, with hands and feet tied behind their backs. And then they stop breathing and die."

The Taser is most often used to subdue people who are reacting due to "excited delirium"; one has to wonder, given the fact that those very same people seem to die FROM the Taser when in police custody (also WITHOUT use of drugs or known illnesses, as the Vancouver zapping shows), if the Taser can be used safely at all.

Paul G. said...

What happened to using pepper spray or mace or even using some amount of force to handcuff someone?

I have yet to hear of a case where someone has died from pepper spray or from being handcuffed.

How many more people must die? said...

Friday, October 26, 2007
What Is Wrong with Police who Would Taser a Sick Child?
Bizarre incident at Save-On Foods
Oct, 25 2007 - 4:40 PM

NORTH VANCOUVER/CKNW(AM980) - A 14 year old girl in possession of some knives was arrested during the noon hour at Lynn Valley Centre.

North Vancouver police constable Randall Wong describes what happened.

"Two members arrived on scene. They found a young female in the fruit isle stabbing fruit and waving the knives around."

Wong says officers tried tasering the girl, but it deflected off her clothing and knapsack.
The girl finally threw the knives at one of the attending officers and she was subdued.

Police are contemplating charges of assault and threatening.
Is this really the best this society can do for a CHILD who is obviously mentally ill. Seriously, a charge of child abuse must be brought against these officers. This is just a shocking abuse of power against this child. It is time for police to be trained in non-abusive ways of working with people with mental health and psychiatric issues and held accountable for their abuse.

Anonymous said...

Pepper spray and physical force have caused their share of deaths as well. Excited delirium again seems to be a common factor. The use of physical force isn't necessarily a good option, either. It puts the police officer in jeopardy, and it's usually not the police officer who's breaking the law when somebody needs to be restrained. By putting an officer's safety at risk, it can also make the use of deadly force more likely. The Ian Bush case might just be such an example.

Justice for Robert D. said...

If you are appalled with Robert Dziekanski's killing then write to your MP asking for an inquiry into the roles of the RCMP and the airport authorities in the matter. A sample letter and the email addresses of the MP's has been made available at .

Spread the word.