The Facts about Tasers — and the Lies

January 5, 2008
in Category: Articles, Society
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The Facts about Tasers — and the Lies

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.


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’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?


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.


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.

Taser International called Webster’s study flawed.

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.

14 comments on “The Facts about Tasers — and the Lies”

  1. Ben says:

    Wow, that was an impressive piece, very well written and researched. Keep up the good work!

  2. Great post, great research, helpful information. What a wonderful post about what is going on in the world of terrorism against everyday people.

  3. ziozio says:

    maaaaaaaan what ever happened to good ol’ fashioned chilies to the eyes and batons to the knees

    lethal/non-lethal, whatever you want to call it, it’s far too unpredictable to be used willy-nilly on the public

    there must not be enough of a debriefing and paperwork for officers to complete after incidents “requiring” taser use

    more accountability, more conflict-resolution training, less “set phasers to stun”

  4. rob says:

    Thanks for the feedback everybody! Yes, absolutely, ziozio, many things police do/use are understandably dangerous. The main problem with the Taser has become the level of dishonesty going on around it, because police love it so much for any ‘client groups’ they don’t feel comfortable talking to.

    Interestingly, of course, the approach is totally different with a truly dangerous person, e.g. when a guy robbed a bank and fired some shots at them in my neighbourhood, well, forget the Taser! They called in heavily armed teams, shut down several blocks, staked the place out for hours and hours… If you really are dangerous, miraculously, police can all of a sudden become a lot more patient with you…

  5. bev honold says:

    Tasers really are wierd and us from the pigs unless we’re really wackos.

  6. cambo says:

    I read this article in Focus. Very well done.
    I have forwarded it to MP Keith Martin, who sent around his flyer this month complaining about “gratuitous” criticism of the police in the wake of their murdering Dziekanski. I figured he needed to consider who he was sticking up for. For some reason, politicians who need votes in Esquimalt pander to the police in a way I’ve never experienced in any community I’ve ever lived.

  7. rob says:

    Thanks, cambo. I’d be interested to hear how Keith Martin responds! I noticed he did shift his message on the war in Afghanistan after getting some input…

  8. The issues surrounding taser and their use and misuse are moderately complicated. Then it gets more muddled by the propaganda originating from AZ and Victoria, BC.

    These little comment boxes do not allow enough space to explore the issues in sufficient detail. For that reason I started a blog where I could have enough floor space to systematically disassemble the misinformation.

    Please see my blog:

    If you like it, please pass it on.

    Send the link to your MP and ask him or her about: Lawful ‘force’ – noun or verb? Ask him or her about: Rule of Law, or Police State? It is the same question asked twice.

  9. rob says:

    Thanks, interesting stuff. Hope you get to interview the Taser Int chief!

  10. Concerned Canadian says:

    I find it very distressing that the RCMP were able to be cleared of “neglegent homicide” after the death of Mr.Robert Dziekanski.

    In only a couple of the news broadcasts shortly after his death, and not since, was one RCMP officer heard, until they removed the audio portion of the video, very clearly, asking “can I taser him” to which another officer was, again clearly heard, saying “yes”.

    At that point the officers approached Mr.Dziekanski who, even to a six year old, could see that there was a problem with communication, as they passed through the automatic doors. It was at this time that they formed a semi circle around him which forced him, Mr.Dziekanski who clearly “did not” understand, what was happening, to place his back against the glass wall and then attempt to move away at which point he was zapped, fell to the ground, zapped again, and fell into cardiac arrest.

    When two men of no less than one hunderd and eighty pounds press upon the neck and back of any person there will, with out doubt, be difficulty in breathing.

    The “unblinking eye” of the video does not misinterpret. The audio was not muffled in any way and I find their brief conversation before they approached Robert very disturbing.

    That is their job. Communication not confrontation.

    These officers chose to taser this man long before they approached him and this is clearly heard on the audio portion of the video that is no longer heard when broadcast of the incident are shown.

    The statement “can I taser him?” is clearly heard on the approach to Robert, and with in fifteen seconds, the taser was used and with in four minutes Robert was dead.

    This is “negligent homicide by a police officer” and should be treated as such. Being a police officer does not absolve you or place you above the law and if you are responsible for the death of anyone, or if someone dies by your hand, “you must” be held accountable.

    Being an officer does not, in any way and cannot in any way, allow you to use force on any unarmed person causing their death.

  11. rob says:

    I strongly agree!

    I notice a CBC report last night indicated that a particular medical examiner blaming Tasers for deaths may lead to police officers being charged with murders…

    But yes, in the Dziekanski case, he was clearly terribly handled in every way.

  12. Virgil says:

    Choke hold, straight jacket, pepper spray and now the Taser. The deaths all have commonalities.

    These are;
    1) the client is in a state of severe mental distress and/or psychosis and as a result these alternate control tactics are used.

    2) After the client is down, two or more persons “hold them down” to administer restraints such as hand-cuffs, hog ties or years ago straight jackets.

    Death occurs in a percentage of these events, and the first thing we look at is the item used to initially get the client on the ground. It is that tool we blame for the death and are appalled when a coroner or medical examiner finds no cause of death directly related.

    It is time to look at the second action which occurred prior to death. The holding tight of the majour muscle groups of a person. These reason for the outburst is in death irrelevant. Though drug induced or even fatigue induced psychosis may be what has got the the attention from police or mental health staff in the first place, it is what happens in the last few seconds of the interaction we must now focus. Holding the client firm, still and tight while possibly pressing in the centre of the back while laying on the chest. This is the common denominator in all of these deaths. Let’s bring this to the attention of those training police and mental health workers.

    We now have tools available to control the outbursts by temporarily allowing others to get in close and take the client down. Don’t blame the tools. Blame the poor training on handling the client after.

    ** remember what we were told as kids, if you chased a bunny around the yard and caught it, it’s heart would explode.. well it doesn’t. But after being chased and terrified then held tight.. they do sometimes die.

    If there is an investigative reporter still out there. Start with the 1994 Pepper Spray and In-Custody Deaths report. Then move to your local mental health facility and look historically at deaths occurring during the attempt to restrain using the old straight jackets. yes, they will all be heart failure. What a coincidence.

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