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The Vancouver Sun

Police Are 'Brainwashed' by Taser Maker; Psychologist Blames Instructions

Neal Hall

A police psychologist blasted Taser International at the public inquiry probing the controversial use of Tasers, claiming Tuesday that Canadian police have been "brainwashed" by the manufacturer to justify "ridiculously inappropriate" use of the electronic weapon.0514 11

Mike Webster accused the company that makes Tasers of instructing police in Canada that when they encounter a person suffering from a "mythical" condition that Taser calls "excited delirium," police have few options other than jolting the person with the controversial electrical weapon, which delivers a five-second shock that incapacitates a person.

"When you think the only tool you have is a hammer, then the whole world begins looking like a nail," Webster told the inquiry in Vancouver.

Excited delirium is not a recognized medical diagnosis, he said, but is a "dubious disorder" used by Taser International in its training of police in Canada and the U.S.

The term is also used by the Institute for the Prevention of In-custody Deaths, which is headed by John Peters, a business associate of Taser International of Arizona.

He pointed out Peters is one of Taser's "star witnesses" in court when the company defends itself against lawsuits alleging a person was killed by a Taser.

"It may be that police and medical examiners are using the term [excited delirium] as a convenient excuse for what could be excessive use of force or inappropriate control techniques during an arrest," Webster said.

"My own opinion on this is that Canadian law enforcement, and its American brothers and sisters, have been brainwashed by companies like Taser International and the Institute for the Prevention of In-custody Deaths," he added.

"These organizations have created a virtual world replete with avatars that wander about with the potential to manifest a horrific condition characterized by profuse sweating, superhuman strength and a penchant for smashing glass that appeals to well-meaning but psychologically unsophisticated police personnel," Webster said.

The chair of Taser, Tom Smith, told the inquiry Monday that Tasers save lives and reduce injuries to police and suspects.

Webster, however, said he has been shocked and embarrassed by recent "ridiculously inappropriate applications of the Taser" in low-risk situations involving people who are mentally imbalanced, likely suffering from "plain old delirium."

He specifically mentioned the case of Frank Lasser, an 82-year-old Kamloops man who was delirious in his hospital bed after heart bypass surgery last week when he produced a pocket knife and an RCMP officer gave him several jolts with a Taser.

He also cited Robert Dziekanski, the Polish immigrant who died last Oct. 14 at Vancouver International Airport after wandering around the airport for nine hours, unable to find his waiting mother, who finally left the airport.

Dziekanski, exhausted and disoriented, was exhibiting bizarre behavior as RCMP officers arrived and, seconds later, shot him more than once with a Taser. He died at the scene.

An amateur video of the incident caused international public outrage and led B.C.'s attorney-general to order the current public inquiry before commissioner Thomas Braidwood, a retired judge.

"It is neither humane nor logical to inflict crippling pain upon someone who has lost his mental balance," Webster told Braidwood.

Police need to create a non-threatening environment to defuse crisis situations by using calm communications skills and neutral body language, he said.

He suggested people who are agitated are in a state of hyper-arousal, which disrupts a person's ability to process information, including police commands, and causes unpredictable behaviour.

Asked by commission lawyer Art Vertlieb what his motivation was in making a presentation, Webster said he wasn't anti-police. "I've worked with police for over 30 years," said the police psychologist, who teaches crisis management skills to Vancouver police and at the Canadian Police College.

Earlier in the day, Dr. Lu Shaohua, a psychiatrist at Vancouver General Hospital, told the inquiry he has seen about 1,000 people suffering from delirium and most are confused, agitated, sometimes aggressive and paranoid.

Lu said precipitating factors can include prolonged sleep deprivation, exhaustion caused by a long-haul flight and dehydration.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

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