Police and Tasers: Hooked on Shock

The past couple of weeks have been rocky on the stock market, but one company that hasn't been suffering too much is Taser International. At the end of January, its stock jumped by an impressive 8 per cent, and it's even higher today.

Matthew McKay, a stock analyst at Jeffries & Co. in San Francisco, cites a simple cause: news that the Toronto Police Services Board plans to buy 3,000 new Taser electroshock weapons, at a cost of $8.6 million for gear and training. If the deal goes ahead, tasers would become standard issue weaponry for all of Toronto's frontline officers, right next to their handcuffs and batons.

On Wednesday night, I participated in a public forum about the prospect of a fully taser-armed police force, organized by the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition. One speaker, who had a history of psychiatric illness, told the room: "We're worried because we're the people who are going to get shocked."

It's a concern grounded in experience. According to Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair's own analysis, in 2006, city cops deployed the devices in 156 incidents. In all but nine, the subject appeared "to have a mental disorder" or was in some sort of "crisis."

Several speakers at the forum pointed out that $8.6 million would be better spent keeping people out of crisis - by opening more beds and providing better mental health and addiction services. Instead, four homeless shelters were closed last year, at a loss of 258 beds.

But the most troubling remark of the evening was this: "Why is this happening now?" The timing is indeed baffling. It was only three months ago that video of the death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport caused an international furor. The tragedy exposed the most prevalent misconception about tasers: that they are used primarily as an alternative to guns. As former Toronto mayor John Sewell told me, "the taser is not the thing that replaces the gun, it's what replaces all the other things that police might do other than use a gun, like talk to you."

That certainly appears to have been the case with Mr. Dziekanski. When the RCMP approached him, they made no attempt to calm the unarmed Polish man, or to discover the source of his extreme agitation. Within 25 seconds, he was getting zapped.

Mr. Dziekanski's death also put a spotlight on the other post-taser deaths, the ones not caught on film. According to Amnesty International, 310 people in North America have died after being shocked with a taser since 2001.

Were these deaths caused by the device or by something else? Taser's aggressive lawyers make it tough to know. The company has been hit with roughly a hundred wrongful death and injury lawsuits and claims it hasn't lost one yet. But in August, Bloomberg News reported on "several mysterious dismissals" - instances where the plaintiffs asked for the cases to be thrown out. Though Taser denies paying off all its accusers, it admits to paying in some, "where the settlement economics ... were significantly less than the cost of litigation."

Taser has consistently claimed that something else is causing the deaths. The company points to a report saying that that death by electrocution happens within seconds. Yet in many cases, subjects have died minutes, even days, after being shocked.

A recent study may explain the discrepancy. Trauma researchers at Chicago's Cook County Hospital conducted an experiment on 11 pigs, zapping each for 40 seconds; then zapping them again 10 or 15 seconds later. (This mimics how tasers are actually used, since Amnesty reports that those who have died after being Tasered were frequently "subjected to multiple or prolonged shocks.") The study found that all the pigs exhibited heart problems after the shocks and two of them died of cardiac arrest, one three minutes later.

Taser CEO Rick Smith has brushed off the study, saying human research is more relevant. However, according to Bob Walker, one of the lead researchers, it shows "that the effect of the taser shot can last beyond the time when it's being delivered."

So back to that question: Why now? In addition to the troubling new scientific evidence and the disconcerting lawsuits, there are several public investigations in Canada that are still ongoing. In addition to those sparked by the Dziekanski death, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are all conducting taser reviews.

Surely it would be wise for Toronto's police chief to wait for those findings before ordering a seven-fold taser increase. But something more powerful than reason appears to be at play here, and I believe it has to do with the seductive promise of no-touch policing.

No other method of controlling unruly suspects offers police the same kind of all-encompassing, instant effect. Talking, calming, negotiating are all messier and take time. Other physical techniques put officers' own bodies at risk.

Then there is the taser. The company boasts that its technology, which allows electrified darts to be fired from more than 10 meters away, "temporarily overrides the command and control systems of the body." At the push of a button, even the strongest, angriest subject drops to the floor. In a way, firing a taser is the maximum power one person can exert over another. As an Ottawa Police officer reportedly said after tasering protesters at the ministry of immigration back in 2003: "Less mess, more fun."

Few would argue with an officer's right to use an electroshock weapon when lives are in danger and the only alternative is a gun. Many Toronto police officers, particularly those on the Emergency Task Force, clearly use them with restraint.

Yet there is also plenty of evidence that some officers get hooked on shock. In Edmonton, in 2001, reports of taserings averaged less than once a week. Three years later, they were coming in daily. In another part of the country, a mother in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia called police when she and her 17-year-old daughter were having an argument. Three officers showed up and tasered the teen in her own bed. In a recent court ruling, the judge called these actions "very disturbing and disconcerting."

It may well be possible to prevent shock-happy policing with tighter controls. Yet, despite repeated calls for stricter regulations for police, Taser International is racing to get its devices in the hands of civilians, marketing the product as not just safe but fun. In the United States the company has been aggressively pushing its line of C2 "personal protectors" - available in pink, leopard print, and in holsters with built-in MP3 players. (The weapon is nicknamed the "iTaser.") Tupperware-style taser parties are springing up in the suburbs of Arizona.

Taser International is a company whose executives present themselves as serious experts in public safety. Yet it has launched this foray into fashion at the very moment when the safety of its devices is being questioned on multiple fronts. Valentine's Day is coming and Taser's website is busily hawking the C2 in flaming red. "Love her? Protect her," goes the slogan.

This is what corporations do: whatever they can get away with to sell more product. From Taser International, we should expect nothing less.

From our police we have a right to expect much more.

Naomi Klein is the author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. www.naomiklein.org

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