Monday, October 19, 2009

Tasers OK in theory, BAD IN PRACTICE

By Kris Kotarski, Calgary Herald October 19, 2009 9:18 AM

Earlier this month, just days before the second anniversary of Robert Dziekanski's death at Vancouver International Airport, Taser International posted a bulletin for law enforcement organizations instructing officers to avoid shooting people in the chest, and encouraging them to target the abdomen, legs or back.

"When possible, avoiding chest shots with electronic control devices avoids the controversy about whether ECDs do or do not affect the human heart."

Aim lower. Avoid controversy. Words to live by.

Considering the ongoing public-relations disaster that is the Braidwood Inquiry into the Oct. 14, 2007 death of Dziekanski after he was repeatedly stunned by RCMP officers with Taser International's weapons, it is not surprising that "the controversy" is a matter of grave concern for the company.

Controversy is not conducive to a healthy bottom line, and even fundraisers featuring Playboy bunnies cannot make people forget the stunning video of Dziekanski screaming on the floor before he died, with four RCMP officers standing over him with Tasers drawn.

The Braidwood Inquiry has heard a number of compelling arguments to ban the weapons completely, and Amnesty International's running tally of American fatalities that occurred shortly after a Taser discharge (presently at 351 since 2001) is enough to give anyone pause.

Yet, as Taser International and police spokespeople are quick to point out, there are also compelling reasons to continue to arm officers with the weapons, especially in light of the very real dangers faced by the police.

The second anniversary of Dziekanski's death is a good moment to reflect on this ongoing argument, and to consider what electroshock weapons have done to our society. Do Tasers make us safer? And, more importantly, do they make us a better people?

Writing at,American blogger Digby has argued that "Tasers were sold to the public as a tool for law enforcement to be used in lieu of deadly force." "Nobody wants to see more death and if police have a weapon they can employ instead of a gun, in self-defence or to stop someone from hurting others, I think we all can agree that's a good thing. But that's not what's happening."

A quick YouTube search shows a number of incidents in the United States and in Canada where officers use the weapons against people who, as Digby puts it, "have not broken any law and whose only crime is being disrespectful toward their authority or failing to understand their 'orders.' "

Here's but one example. After getting into an argument about a parking ticket with a Kelowna RCMP officer in 2007, 68-year-old John Peters was punched in the head and Tasered twice while sitting in his car next to his horrified wife. It is not difficult to imagine how the argument between Peters and the officer may have progressed, but it does require a major stretch of the imagination to see how a 68-year-old stroke survivor who is partially blind in one eye could have possibly threatened the officer in a manner that justified his treatment.

In that case, the RCMP has since admitted its mistake and the officer was disciplined by the force, but that hardly makes up for the terror of the initial situation. And that is the problem with Tasers. Anyone who has read about cases like Dziekanski's or Peters' is entitled to feel disgusted by the practical-- if not the theoretical --use of the weapons.

The basic premise underlining community support for police work is fairness. Without fairness, there is no chance for trust, and without trust, the dangers faced by police officers and ordinary citizens increase exponentially.

Weapons like Tasers continue to shock the conscience not because of how they are used in theory, but because of how they are used in practice. And, despite assurances by Taser International, aiming lower will not solve the underlying issue of fairness, or stop the very credible accusations of cruelty, negligence and abuse.

Kris Kotarski's Column Runs Every Second Monday.

- Calgary Herald: Tasers BAD in theory, BAD in practice

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