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Globe and Mail/Canada

Taser Executive Faces Tough Questions

As Toronto police consider spending millions on stun guns, forum audience comes armed with critical research

Unnati Gandhi

The packed auditorium listened in silence as the co-founder of Arizona-based Taser International Inc. explained at a public forum in Toronto last night the science behind the stun guns, but it was during the 75-minute question period that Thomas Smith found he had to defend himself from stinging accusations.

Mr. Smith, who was in town as the Toronto Police Services Board weighs a request by Police Chief Bill Blair to spend $8.6-million to equip and train every front-line officer with a taser, was confronted by the sister of a man who died after being tasered by Vancouver police.

He was also presented with an offer to stun an elderly man right then and there, and was caught off guard by audience members armed with research.

"Are tasers risk free? No. ... The reality is that there [are] still studies to be done, we encourage them, we work with them, we want them to be done because it's going to continue to answer those questions," he told the standing-room-only crowd.

If Chief Blair's request is approved by the civilian oversight board, the move would see the number of tasers deployed by city police rise significantly from the current 500 or so, and make the Toronto force the first in the country to have the stun guns so widely available.

Speaking to reporters after the heated question period, Chief Blair defended his position on the use of tasers as an alternative for guns.

"In the hands of a properly trained officer, properly directed, supervised and accountable for its use, those things can save lives and I want them accessible to my front-line officers for those circumstances where they can reduce injury to my people and also reduce injury to the public."

During the forum, Patti Gillman, whose brother, Robert Bagnell, died after being tasered by Vancouver police in 2004, said she was speaking on behalf of the more than 300 North Americans who have died after being shot by the guns since 2003.

"[My brother] was unarmed, he was of no credible threat to police or to the public and there were 13 police officers there the night that he died," she said. "I know that most thinking Canadians would concur that the use of tasers was not only unjustified the night my brother died, but was also likely unjustified in the majority of cases."

Ms. Gillman - who lodged a formal complaint after learning that a veteran Victoria police officer who played a pivotal role in a 1998 pilot program that led to his force adopting the weapons permanently had received several payments from Taser International since 1999 - asked Mr. Smith how many other Canadian police officers had been paid by the company.

Mr. Smith responded: "We also compensate officers when they train, for their time to train. I don't know if any Canadians were among those."

Ken Wood volunteered to be stunned in front of the crowd.

"Everything that I see that you do in your studies is basically physically fit, gung-ho military types saying, 'Go ahead, taser me.' You don't know my health history, you don't know who I am, I'm Joe Average on the street."

Andy Buxton, chair of Amnesty International Toronto, asked Mr. Smith about research on tasers conducted by Amnesty and other independent organizations. Mr. Smith repeatedly responded that he had not seen the data and so he could not comment.

Then, Mr. Buxton asked: "Are you familiar with research that suggests that 20 per cent of all use of tasers are in what you refer to yourself as pain compliance mode [set to inflict pain to get a subject to co-operate]?"

"I'm not familiar with that specific study," Mr. Smith responded.

"Those were your own statistics, Mr. Smith, from your own website," Mr. Buxton said.

© 2008 Globe and Mail

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