Police adore Tasers. Medical researchers and coroners have become cozy with the manufacturer. Taser International has been threatening legal action against Canadian media. Whose claims can we trust?
Shortly after the horrifying, videotaped death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver Airport tore through our public consciousness, another frightening thing happened. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police leaped up and gave Tasers a ringing public endorsement.
It was the most crass act the association could have committed, reminiscent of how the National Rifle Association parachutes gun proponents into the post-mortems of mass shootings.
“Forgive us if we sound biased,” announced association president Gord Tomlinson to the press.
But should we forgive them?
Well, there is one crucial aspect to the police side of this story that’s so far been underdiscussed.
Years of cutbacks by conservative-leaning governments to health care, welfare, assistance programs, and housing have created a volatile social milieu, particularly for people experiencing intense psychological or addictions-related crises. And police are now left alone as the front line responders to an increasing number of explosions of anxiety and frustration at overcrowded boarding houses, underfunded social service agencies, short-staffed care facilities, downtown streets and, sometimes, even homes and airports. (For more insight on this issue, see also this deputation to Toronto police by Canadian rights activist and survivor of forced psychiatric treatment Don Weitz.)
In 2005, Movie Monday showed Crisis Call by Canadian Laura Sky, a thoughtful documentary that had gathered interviews with police officers about this growing nation-wide phenomenon. Three area police officers answered questions after the showing, and overall it became clear that our police, mainly trained to handle criminals, dislike having to fill this gap in our social safety net, and are feeling increasingly overwhelmed and ill-trained for the role.
Victoria’s Sgt. Grant Hamilton confirms that “the majority” of police interventions today involve alcohol, drugs or mental health issues. “When no one else can come,” he adds, “you call the police. We’re the only ones who can always come.”
Though reluctant to comment on the broader political issues, Hamilton points to the significant impact on police of lack of housing alone and states, “We definitely want a solution.”
All of this could explain, in part, the rough, hurried way the RCMP treated Dziekanski. His situation seemed to require an interpreter, border staff who weren’t bogged down in the minutiae of ridiculously expanded anti-terrorism responsibilities, or maybe a crisis interventionist or just a responsible security guard. But to four heavily armed police officers, Dziekanski was just another time-sucking irritant.
All of which also begins to explain why quickie-takedown Tasers have become so popular, misused and vehemently defended by police.
WIDESPREAD IMPROPER USE
Since 1999, thousands of North American police forces have been arming with Tasers, and deployments are rising steadily. Municipal police in BC’s Lower Mainland used Tasers 152 times in 2006, up from 97 in 2005. With some controls in place, Victoria police Taser deployments remained steady, at 79 in 2005 and 74 in 2006 (though these numbers don’t distinguish between actual uses and merely drawing the Taser).
Conservative calculations link 300 North American deaths to Tasers, 20 in Canada.
Maybe most Taser uses are appropriate. Nevertheless, abuse of Tasers is obviously rampant. From Halifax to Victoria, Nunavut to Miami, six year olds, retirees, and even unarmed people in wheelchairs have been Tasered.
Particularly telling is the number of minor infractions that, somehow, escalate into violent conflicts. Amnesty International’s report on Canadian Taserings includes a speeding infraction, a suspected unpaid cab fair, a man refusing to leave a bar, and a man with cerebral palsy being evicted. Police searching an Edmonton hotel used Tasers to rouse sleeping suspects. A distressed 82-year old Victoria man was Tasered trying to escape Beacon Hill Villa. (The Villa itself is now under investigation for elder abuse.)
These aren’t the types of situations which we would ordinarily expect to cause officers to fear for theirs or anyone’s lives. And in the past, such situations were not typically associated with police shootings. So what’s going on? The chair of the Toronto Police Services Board recently expressed worry that “the Taser could lead to lazy policing”, and indeed, these accounts suggest police may become bolder, less patient and more provocative themselves when they have Tasers at hand.
Even when suspects are under control, Tasers are frequently used: An Ottawa protester passively resisting arrest was Tasered. An impaired driver resisted being fingerprinted and was Tasered three times. A jaywalker returned to talk, but refused to sit down, and was Tasered twice. A Halifax woman was shocked three times while handcuffed in a jail cell.
Far from saving lives, such situations are clearly more about what the UN Committee Against Torture has condemned as using Tasers for “pain compliance”. Indeed, while much attention has focused on Taser safety, Amnesty International has pointed out that equally concerning is the way Tasers give police a portable, easy-to-use manner to inflict terrible pain without leaving appreciable marks. (Public Taser demonstrations usually inflict split-second jolts, but in the field Tasers fire for five seconds, and can fire longer and repeatedly. By most accounts, the pain is excruciating. ) (Note: Here’s a police training video that looks at least a little more realistic…)
Yet our governments and police apparently don’t see a serious problem, and so far aren’t demanding or instituting fundamental changes to how Tasers are handled. Still more internal “reviews” are coming, but there’s been no commitment to a comprehensive, independent evaluation.
Instead, most North American police have become so attached to Tasers, they’re manipulating the political landscape and misleading public perception.
From the beginning, police have presented Tasers as a “nonlethal alternative to deadly force that saves lives”. How could any reasonable person not embrace that?
Unfortunately, every word of that statement is misleading.
When Victoria police wrote their “Final Report” on Tasers in 2005 for the Police Complaint Commissioner, they themselves lamented that the term “nonlethal” had “inadvertently” created “unrealistic” expectations in the public. They recommended Tasers be described as “lower lethality” weapons.
That description hasn’t caught on.
Meanwhile, claims about “saving lives” bloat absurdly.
Const. Mike Massine, who co-authored Victoria’s report, told the Canadian Press in November he would’ve had to kill several people but for the Taser. It’s hard to question such personal, anecdotal evidence. But police reps cobbled together these statements from officers and in 2004 told the CBC Tasers had saved 4,000 Canadian lives since 1999. (CBC updated that web page in 2007 and, somewhat ironically, kept the same figure. Here’s the original CBC page from 2004 thanks to Archive.org’s WayBackMachine.) At that point, such claims appear for what they are: pro-Taser propaganda. If true, that would mean without Tasers our police would’ve engaged in annual slaughters twenty or thirty times Canada’s historical rate for police shootings, making them bigger homicidal maniacs than all of our murderers combined. (Our suicide rates haven’t changed, so police weren’t saving those lives, either.)
As for Tasers being “an alternative to lethal force”, that was corrected during the 2005 inquest into the shooting death of Saanich’s Majencio Camaso. Use-of-force expert Const. Wayne Unger said Tasering the unstable man would have been inappropriate, unless the attending officer had been backed up by someone with a firearm. Similarly, Massine recently explained to CP, “I had somebody watching my back with a pistol. [A Taser] works in concert with lethal force. It’s never intended to replace it.”
Essentially, unless there’s still time, space and opportunity to turn to lethal force if need be, police aren’t supposed to use finicky, fallible Tasers.
So then, are Tasers an alternative to lethal force in life-threatening situations, or an alternative to try, along with patience, physical restraint and batons, before a situation becomes truly life-threatening? Police answer differently depending on whether they’re justifying their Taserings or their shootings.
This December, the RCMP Complaint Commissioner’s report confirmed such “usage creep” meant police were far too often using the Taser “earlier than reasonable” in situations that weren’t even “combative” let alone life-threatening for anyone.
Though he too still feels Tasers save lives, Victoria’s Sgt. Hamilton also confirms, “The Taser was never intended as a replacement to lethal force.” He instead describes a scenario where a knife-waving man ignores police commands. “Can we let that person walk away?” Depending on “very fluid” situational factors, Hamilton says, like relative size of a police officer to a suspect, officer skill level, or presence of different weapons, a Taser might become a helpful option in the use-of-force continuum.
Hamilton’s argument helps bring some focus and forthrightness to the whole Taser debate, but such honesty is still too rare. More often, for example, police have even been turning to bald cover-ups to protect the Taser’s reputation. The video of Dziekanski’s death showed the RCMP lied brazenly about how much they tried to calm Dziekanski and how dangerous he was. After Robert Bagnell died in 2004, Vancouver police didn’t even tell their own investigating detective they’d Tasered the heavily-drugged and disoriented man. The detective learned it from witnesses later, and then for weeks police hid the fact from the public and Bagnell’s family.
Certainly, shootings in some cities have become slightly less common after Tasers were introduced. Yet have Tasers made it more common for police to accidentally kill people they had no intention, or need, to kill?
POLICE AND CORONERS LINKED TO COMPANY
According to police and manufacturer Taser International, Tasers have been “contributing factors” and “linked” to deaths, but have virtually never caused a death. (Taser International sent “legal demand letters” to 60 Canadian news outlets insisting on corrections to statements “blaming the Taser” for Dziekanski’s death.)
However, many medical studies and field safety reviews were either funded by Taser International, or involved police and people who’ve been on Taser International’s payroll, and it’s on such literature that many coroners base their conclusions about cause of death.
These intertwining relationships between police, coroners and Taser International run deep. BC’s chief coroner was the Surrey RCMP superintendent until 2001. Victoria’s Sgt. Darren Laur held stock in Taser International and professionally trained other agencies in Taser use until a few months before he began work on the VPD’s Taser evaluation. Ontario’s deputy chief coroner has been accepting all-expenses-paid trips from Taser International to give speeches about excited delirium, the mystery “disease” that supposedly causes many Taser victims to die.
Growing awareness of these tight relationships has prompted our federal government to promise an investigation into Taser International’s links to Canadian officials. In the meantime, this “common ground” with coroners and police has been helping the company win a running gun battle of lawsuits from Taser victims and their families. In return, according to the Globe and Mail, the company assists governments and police in their own legal defenses.
And what happens if you’re not “on side”? In 2005, Cook County’s Medical Examiner declared that a police Tasering had in fact caused the death of a Chicago man. Taser International lobbied for a judicial review and its hired experts publicly attacked the coroner’s credibility.
Forensic Engineer James Ruggieri published a study suggesting Tasers in real circumstances could give more dangerously intense shocks than the manufacturer states. (See an interesting article about it all part-way down here.) The company called Ruggieri a “high school drop-out” who couldn’t do basic math. Yet Taser International’s own 2003 medical review had concluded that, due to “physiological variables”, it was “impossible to accurately calculate” how much electrical shock a Taser would deliver into a human body. Similarly, the most recent inquest into the Bagnell case featured expert testimony that Tasers can administer shocks many times the manufacturer’s specs.
And that’s just the beginning of the medical unknowns.
MISSING MEDICAL RESEARCH
In police Taser reviews, negative findings may be downplayed or disappear. For example, the Canadian government’s own investigation of “stun guns” in 1990 found the weapons deadly and recommended banning them. Lead scientist Andrew Podgorski still speaks out against Tasers (more from Podgorski here.) However, his study isn’t discussed in the VPD’s report.
Overall, Tasers appear to be relatively safe when used on healthy, relaxed people. But how many times are Tasers being used on healthy, relaxed people?
That summarizes the glaring, suspicious gap in the medical research.
We already know prolonged, multiple shocks from Tasers are dangerous. But how deadly is even one Taser shock for people undergoing heart stress already? This at-risk group would include people taking most recreational drugs, withdrawing from drugs, taking psychiatric medications with heart-related side effects, experiencing high levels of adrenaline-stress, or who are just unhealthy.
Basically, this at-risk group would include practically everyone most likely to be Tasered. Furthermore, it’s known electrical shocks could interact with these other risk factors to induce cardiac arrest much later.
Unfortunately, most Taser studies have considered electrical shock alone as a possible cause of immediate cardiac arrest. Even the VPD’s report lamented this dearth of research into “such potentially relevant factors as drug ingestion and the elevated heart rate provoked by physical struggle”. The authors hoped two upcoming studies would address these gaps.
In 2006, the University of Wisconsin released one of those studies. It concluded Tasers could very occasionally cause cardiac arrests, even in healthy humans, if the barbs land close to the heart.
This December, the British government released the other widely anticipated study. It boldly announced Tasers wouldn’t likely cause immediate heart attacks. On the final page, the scientists quietly qualify their findings, though, by noting that they didn’t consider some factors which could make heart attacks more likely, “such as illicit drug intoxication, alcohol abuse, pre-existing heart disease”, prescription drug use, or physical stress.
Evidently, it’s another useless study that’s nevertheless been useful for police and Taser International-the company promptly linked to it from their website’s front page. It’s helping them market their more powerful, wireless, shotgun Tasers to governments, and some sleek pistol models to women.