Taser policies need amendment

Devices should only be used when in danger

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Maybe it’s just because everyone in the office feels the “crime beat” is my beat, or maybe it’s because a man was killed in B.C. Either way, stories involving tasers keep finding their way onto my desk.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, a taser is an electronic control device that first became popular in the late ’90s. The device propels two probes (originally with gunpowder, now with nitrogen) anywhere from 15 to 35 feet at a speed of over 160 feet per second. These probes, connected to the device with insulated wire, can pierce clothing and skin and when triggered can deliver a shock of 50,000 volts.

The charge is obviously incapacitating.

Seems pretty handy for law enforcement, right? That’s the general consensus in America, where over 11,000 out of 18,000 law enforcement agencies employ tasers.

And it’s pretty easy to see why tasers see such widespread use. Taser International markets the device as being virtually harmless, citing numerous independent studies to support its claims. When compared to other non-lethal weapons such as pepper spray or nightsticks, a taser affords the user a high level of personal safety by offering separation from the target.

Personally, I feel tasers can be a very effective tool for law enforcement. When a suspect has a weapon and an officer is in a critical situation, a taser is a much more acceptable solution than using a firearm.

However, in cases such as the tasing of a disruptive University of Florida student earlier this year, “police brutality” is a more appropriate label.

Maybe that’s why the taser is finding itself in the news today. The tragic death of Robert Dziekanski at a Vancouver airport last month is an excellent example of the misuse of tasers. Regardless of whether Dziekanski died of being tased or through “positional asphyxia,” as the RCMP claims, a taser should not have been used on him.

What happened to the RCMP being taught negotiation techniques? Why is it so hard to expect four officers to be able to calm down Dziekanski?

Arriving at the scene and deciding within seconds that a taser should be used is worse than police brutality " it’s laziness. Even worse is the decision to “hit him again,” as the RCMP officers can be heard yelling in the video.

Excuse me, but why give Dziekanski another charge? Three officers were holding him at this point. Call me naive, but at the bar (I work as a barback in London) we generally regard having three staff holding one person as a situation under control.

A quick Google search will reveal several instances of misused tasers. How about the two cases where the Miami-Dade Police Department used a taser on a 12-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy within the span of two weeks? Or the case of Nicholas Gaubert from across the pond in London, England? He was tasered for the crime of going into a diabetic coma on a bus when London was in the grips of terrorist-inspired fear.

Oh, and he “looked Egyptian.”

I’m still unsure where I stand regarding tasers. Obviously, Taser International will continue to insist its products are safe. To apologize to victims’ families " and thus imply complicity " or say anything else would be a knockout blow for the company.

But when 79 per cent of RCMP taser targets are unarmed, there needs to be a re-evaluation of how tasers are used and who they are used on.

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