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Inter Press Service

Taser Use Soars as Concerns Mount Over Safety

Am Johal

VANCOUVER - The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has doubled its use of Taser stun guns since 2005, according to an investigation by CBC and the Canadian Press. The RCMP has also been found to be less than forthright in producing information related to Taser incidents.

The use of Tasers by Canadian policing forces has become a national and international issue since Robert Dziekanski, a Polish man wishing to immigrate to the country, was Tasered and killed at the Vancouver International Airport.

The RCMP was ordered to conduct an internal review and there will be further reviews by the British Columbia coroner's office, the Vancouver Airport Authority and the provincial government.

There have been 19 Taser-related deaths in Canada since 2001, and of 563 incidents analysed by the Canadian Press, 75 percent of suspects were unarmed.

The rise in usage of Tasers has been most dramatic in British Columbia, where the number of incidents rose from 218 in 2005 to 496 in 2007, and from 89 to 371 in Alberta in the same period.

The Toronto Police Services Board is planning to buy 3,000 new Taser electric shock weapons for 8.4 million dollars. In 2006, police used the devices 156 times, and all but nine incidents involved people who appeared to have a mental disorder or were in crisis.

The RCMP has also heavily censored documents related to the use of Tasers, citing privacy issues. With the recent deaths in Canada, the RCMP is now coming under further direct criticism for its lack of transparency.

A state known as 'excited delirium', associated with drug use or poor mental health, could also be a contributing factor in the deaths related to the Tasers, according to policing officials.

Taser International, the U.S.-based manufacturer of most of these conducted energy weapons, argues that the weapons have never been directly blamed for a death. Taser International claims it has never lost a lawsuit related to its weapons but some cases have been settled out of court.

Amnesty International reports that 310 people have died in North America following Taser use.

John Tackaberry, a spokesperson with Amnesty International Canada, told IPS, 'The issue is the availability of information around Tasers is inadequate. We are calling for suspension of their use until an independent study can be done. One of the problems right now is that most of the current studies have been done by Taser International, the company who manufactures the Tasers.'

Tackaberry added that additional training needed to be done to ensure that Tasers are not misused by police. He emphasised that the Taser should be a weapon of last resort and that there should be extreme caution toward multiple uses of the weapon on the same person.

In one experiment at Cook County Hospital in the U.S. city of Chicago, 11 pigs were Tasered for 40 seconds and then hit again 10 to 15 seconds later. The pigs were found to have heart problems and two of them died. This is in direct contrast to studies that Taser International has completed internally which verify the safety of the weapon.

There are also leopard-print and hot pink Tasers available for personal use in the United States, some of which have built-in MP3 players. Some states allow citizens to carry Tasers for self-defence.

Murray Mollard of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association will appear before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security as part of their Taser study on Friday Apr. 4. Mollard told IPS that he plans to raise the issue of 'function creep' identified by Paul Kennedy of the RCMP public complaints commission in its interim review on Tasers released in December 2007.

Function creep refers to the ease of usage of the device due to its availability. In his interim recommendations, Kennedy called for Tasers to be placed higher on the use of force spectrum so that negotiation and other interventions would precede use of the device.

Mollard cited a lack of uniform standards regarding training of police forces on Tasers, their use and accountability, and the lack of independent research regarding Tasers. The BC Civil Liberties Association also supports the call for a moratorium on Tasers.

'This is old-time RCMP behaviour in an era that is supposed to be about a different kind of RCMP -- more open, transparent and modern policing under the new leadership of Commissioner Elliott,' he told IPS. 'What this suggests is that it is going to take a long time to turn this large ship around, whether that be with respect to Tasers or a myriad of other issues, and that the political masters can't lose their grip on the bridge. Canadians want more information about police Taser use, not less.'

David Eby of the Pivot Legal Society, a poverty law organisation in Vancouver, told IPS, 'Tasers are a highly visible example of a tendency among police officers to use whatever tools are available to them regardless of the potential impacts.'

'In Ottawa, where police forces have regular training on use of force, they are less likely to use Tasers, guns or force at all,' Eby noted. 'Police officers approach people under the influence of drugs or mental health [problems] and have a lack of training to deal with this situation. It's tempting to put the blame on the Taser, but in Vancouver there's a lack of training of officers to deal with mental health on their day-to-day policing work.'

© 2008 Inter Press Service

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