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Wedded to the stun gun Add to ...

New Brunswick's police chiefs were so concerned about the public's shaky confidence after a string of notorious taser deaths in Canada in the fall that they announced a review of the electric stun guns. That review has now been completed. The chiefs decided - can you stand the suspense? - that the usage guidelines are fine just the way they are.

There; is public confidence restored yet?

Of course not. It's no surprise that when police chiefs sit down together they decline to impose strict limits on a convenient weapon. They like having the option of a 50,000-volt gun that can be used in a variety of confrontations, not always terribly dangerous ones, under the use-of-force guidelines developed by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

"We saw no reason to make any changes to that whatsoever," Barry MacKnight, the chief of Fredericton's police and president of the New Brunswick Association of Chiefs of Police, told The Globe and Mail this week, referring to the policy on when tasers may be used.

But did he watch the infamous videotape of the fatal tasering of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport last October, a videotape that horrified Canada and a good part of the world? The video showed a man who was unarmed and harmless enough that a woman in the vicinity walked up to the distressed man and tried to help. Within 30 seconds of the arrival of several RCMP officers, the 40-year-old was tasered, twice. He died within minutes.

"That video was two-dimensional," Mr. MacKnight said. "I think it will assist in the investigation of that matter. That's all I would say. I've been a police officer for a long time and I know a thorough investigation has to be done."

No, a skeptical look at the taser was not likely from these police chiefs.

They did, however, suggest a couple of improvements to the taser policy: a training course once a year, rather than once every three years, for those certified to use the tasers. Fine. And a call to the emergency medical services when there's a police confrontation in which a taser (or other forms of force) might be used.

This may seem a tacit recognition of the obvious - that tasers are dangerous, having been linked to the deaths of 20 people in Canada in under five years - but Mr. MacKnight sees it another way. "There's been no case where there's been a finding that the taser caused a death. But there have been a number where the taser is in a chain of events." (Tom Smith, the head of Taser International, told a House of Commons committee that the taser has been found to be a contributing factor in 30 deaths in the United States.) Mr. MacKnight didn't find that terribly meaningful. The arrival of the police is also a link in the chain, and "no one would imply we would remove that link from the chain."

No, but an impartial observer might suggest removing the links that actually kill people, such as restraining someone by sitting on his neck or using a taser on people high on drugs or suffering from mental illness and whose breathing is already laboured.

It's unlikely that police will volunteer to restrict the use of tasers.Only an impartial review and some fresh research, such as that now being undertaken in the United States with doctors from several disciplines, can help restore public confidence.

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