Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Police in a risky love affair with Tasers

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CALGARY -- Given all the controversy they seem to generate, it might sound odd to suggest Tasers are wonderful devices. But they actually are.

Many other modern gadgets we have are pretty amazing, too, such as smartphones, cars that can park themselves and Bluetooth.

In the right hands.

The problem with any miracle of modern technology occurs when it is quite literally too good -- its positive attributes too obvious, its labour-saving or, in the case of Tasers, life-saving potential so clear -- that we start a love affair with the gadget that defies rationality.

Like the Ontario government, which has decided to equip all its front-line officers with Tasers. Until now, only tactical units and front-line supervisors could use the ubiquitous zappers.

The case for Tasers is almost self-evident, and described eloquently by law enforcement agencies around the world. The high-voltage devices, which are intended to momentarily incapacitate a threatening person, provide a real alternative to lethal force. It's the gadget police should have used -- that is, if any was needed -- on troubled Toronto teen Sammy Yatim, who died after being shot nine times on an empty transit car in July, even though his only weapon was a pocket knife.

Statistics suggest that, deployed properly, Tasers do indeed save lives. In March 2009, the federal RCMP watchdog reported RCMP officers used the gadgets 1,106 times in 2008. Were they always necessary? Even if you were to argue lethal force was required in one-tenth of those situations, that's still preventing 110 potential deaths at the hands of police.

But that number is alarming. Although the number of Taser deployments was down one-third from the year before, it strains credibility to think lethal force was truly needed on more than 1,000 occasions. This is where the love affair with the gadgets goes sideways.

Tasers have become a handy tool to "bring someone down," when maybe a little physical force would have done the job. Viewed as largely harmless, Tasers are a great way for cops to avoid getting involved in a wrestling match with disorderlies resisting arrest. Much of the time, no harm done.

But overuse leads to recklessness, and anyone who has watched the disturbing citizen video of 40-year-old Robert Dziekanski getting zapped five times at Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 14, 2007, can easily see Tasers are being treated by some police as nothing more than a convenient arrest tool.

Dziekanski, as we know, died. A provincial public inquiry under commissioner Thomas Braidwood, released on July 23, 2009, concluded stun guns can be deadly and the B.C. provincial government had abdicated its responsibility to establish provincewide standards for their use.

The RCMP, in May 2010, released new Taser restrictions, indicating officers can only use the weapons in cases where a person is causing bodily harm or an officer has "reasonable grounds" to believe a person will "imminently" harm someone. They must also give a verbal warning "where tactically feasible" before unleashing the volts.

That's all well and good for our federal force, but they're not the only agency involved. By the end of 2010, 129 law enforcement agencies were using Tasers, according to numbers from the Canadian Police Research Centre.

Worldwide, more than 16,200 law enforcement agencies in more than 40 countries use Tasers, according to the world's only manufacturer, the U.S.-based Taser International. Since early 1998, more than 543,000 Tasers have been sold to law enforcement agencies.

So, what we have here is a good idea that's gone way beyond its advertised mandate. Instead of being used as a last-resort tool to prevent the use of lethal force, it has become a standard tool in too many agencies' toolbox -- a handy way for some officers to avoid breaking a sweat (and perhaps avoid a workers' compensation claim).

And they're used way too often. Amnesty International says between 2001 and August 2008, 334 Americans died after Taser shocks. Medical examiners and coroners ruled at least 50 of those deaths were contributed to by the shock. Most suspects were unarmed, and many were subjected to repeated or prolonged shocks.

And yet, it is a running joke, like in The Hangover, where the hapless bumblers avoid jail time by agreeing to be demonstration subjects for the Taser. We're supposed to giggle as they writhe on the floor in flamboyant agony, but it's not a very funny scene when you know what happened in Vancouver.

The genie is out of the bottle. Police forces around the world love Tasers, and there's no going back. You could argue -- as I do -- we shouldn't.

But much more stringent controls are needed universally for their use. All police officers need crystal-clear guidelines around when they can be used and the consequences they will face if those aren't followed.

If those rules aren't developed and enforced, then Tasers will become just one more "good idea" we wish we never had.

 

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.

 

-- troymedia.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 9, 2013 A11

History

Updated on Monday, September 9, 2013 at 10:31 AM CDT: Updated.

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