Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Public sold a phony story on Taser safety, use

Two things have jumped out from the provincial inquiry into Taser use.
First, the public has been misled at best, lied to at worst, about the safety of Tasers and the way they would be used.
And second, that civilian oversight of police is a myth in B.C. Government's claims that it sets policy on Taser use and most other police activities are empty.
I was an advocate for Tasers after a pilot project here in Victoria in 1999. They were pitched as a great tool that could make things safer for police and public.
At the end of a six-month trial, one of the officers enthusiastically talked cited examples from the nine times the Taser was used zap someone.
One case involved a naked, crazed man coming at officers with a long metal spike and deer antlers. If the Taser hadn't been available, he might have been shot.
Another involved a deranged man determined to leap up the window in his 12th-floor apartment. Police tasered him in the nick of time. (The officer who provided the examples and pushed to have the weapon approved received stock options from Taser International two years later for his work on a holster design.)
The police convinced me the weapon offered a safer alternative than other options in some cases. The claims were always about taking down armed attackers or dealing at a safe distance with suicidal or dangerous people, something not possible with pepper spray.
More importantly, they convinced then attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh.
But Dosanjh told the inquiry this month he was misled about the way police would use Tasers.
Kevin Begg, assistant deputy minister in the Solicitor General's Ministry, referred to "slippage" in Taser use. Instead of taking the time to de-escalate a situation, police are just zapping people who don't co-operate.
Begg isn't an armchair quarterback; he was an RCMP officer for 23 years. And he too was an initial supporter, describing the Taser as "a very valuable alternative to shooting someone with a firearm" when the pilot project was launched.
But that's now how the Taser has been used. The provincial inquiry was ordered after the death of Robert Dzienkanski at Vancouver's airport. Video evidence showed police made no effort to defuse the situation.
Earlier this month police zapped an 82-year-old man, who needs oxygen just to walk, as he lay in a Kamloops hospital bed. He was delusional because he couldn't catch his breath and refused to drop a knife with a three-inch blade.
But he wasn't enough of a danger to prevent an RCMP officer from approaching close enough to press the Taser against his stomach and zap him three times.
And Vancouver's transit police have tasered people, including fare evaders, for being "non-compliant."
That policy, changed last week, highlights the underlying problem.
As the death toll mounted, B.C.'s Police Complaints Commissioner did a review of Taser use and recommended clear limits. People had to be "actively resisting" officers before they could be hit with the electric charge.
The Solicitor General's Ministry claimed the new policy was in place. But all it did was send a one-page letter to police chiefs. As the transit police confirmed, the policy was widely and blatantly ignored. (Transit police even ignored a call to testify at the public inquiry until Solicitor General John van Dongen ordered the force to appear.)
Anyway, the policy is irrelevant for most British Columbians. About 70 per cent of them are policed by some 8,000 RCMP officers. The force does not accept any civilian oversight and refuses to allow the provincial government to set policies.
The Taser is still a potentially valuable tool. But seven people have died in B.C. after being the weapon was used on them; more than 300 in North America.
Police continue to insist there is no risk, and use it accordingly. Many continue to reject the notion of civilian control or oversight.
It's a dangerous combination.
Footnote: Taser International continues to insist the only risk from using the weapon is that the victim might fall and be injured and tells police to use it on that basis. This week, two cardiologists told the inquiry the stun guns could "almost certainly" cause heart attacks.


Anonymous said...

The Taser Stun Gun has become a "Fun Gun" in the hands of many officers. For those interested check out YouTube police car camera videos. And Taser is now selling a personal one. Sheesh!

Gary E said...

And for the benefit of those in the lower mainland who may not have heard: there is an RCMP officer on trial in the Cariboo for the wrongful use of a taser. That officer was reportedly witnessed using the taser on a man who was handcuffed in the back seat of his patrol car.

So in this case there appears to be a rogue cop in possession of this weapon.

Dl said...

Give some law enforecemtn folks a new gadget and they will use it. Like hitting a 82 year old man in a hospital bed three times. I guess they have lost the ability to convince folks to comply. some jerks in every profession it seems.

Excited-Delirium.com said...


300+ posts all about Taser, tasers, and their all-too-frequent abuse.

Eric said...

Taser victims have died for years, but Taser doesn't seem to care. From CP:

Staff Sgt. Joe Spindor, of the New Westminster Police Department, told the inquiry Tuesday his Taser training is based on what he was taught by Taser International. "The information we receive is that it's safe to use on subjects," Spindor said. He said he hadn't heard of Janusz's opinion on possible cardiac arrest. "No. I've actually heard the opposite from Taser in my instruction."

Thank you, Taser International, for all of your helpful “education”; leaving out essential warnings about possible cardiac arrest has likely led to several taser deaths, deaths that could have been prevented if proper education would have been in place.

Anonymous said...

For any police force to be truly effective, it must have the confidence, trust and support of the society at large.

Recent revelations of Taser abuse and police treatment of suspects and detainees have severely eroded public faith in law enforcement. Their leadership has compounded the loss of credibility by responding in ways that are stunningly stupid in their arrogance, disrespect, evasiveness, even downright deceitfulness on occasion. By refusing to confront public concerns, accept responsibility for their actions and demonstrate leadership re how to restore public confidence, they have turned some worryingproblems into a full-blown crisis.

I'm sure there are great cops as well as bad cops and cops who just need better direction out there. But right now it's sure not looking that way. These guys are seriously out of touch with reality. A major shake-up at the top & a major cultural shift throughout is called for.

Anonymous said...

Does anybody remember the rash of reports of people dying in police choke holds back in the '80s and '90s prior to widespread use of tasers? I'm not convinced that a taser is any more lethal than older police techniques - it's just a whole lot faster and safer for the police officer.

Tasers have been used inappropriately at times - that's obvious. A better understanding of their hazards would help curb their use, I think. Contrary to some of the posters here, I don't believe that the police are particularly malevolent individuals. Some of the supposed abuses have been misrepresented, though. The Skytrain incidents are a good example: running from a transit cop is a pretty clear indictor of a guilty mind.

Eric said...

running from a transit cop is a pretty clear [indicator] of a guilty mind

Tasering the guilty minded now? That's new for me, but I'm sure TASER is all for it. And if the police is already doing it, it can't be bad, or can it?