Friday, November 16, 2007

Tasers: Stunning reality check

It's being likened to the Rodney King video -- the famous beating of a black motorist by some Los Angeles police officers -- and rightfully so.

The ten minute video of a disoriented Polish immigrant who was shot several times with an electric weapon at the Vancouver airport has now been viewed millions of times around the world and the man's death has brought into serious question the continued use of tasers by police in the United States and Canada.

Amnesty International keeps track of taser deaths which they peg at over 270 since 2001. In Canada there were at least 18 since 2003.

Taser supporters make a bizarre argument that tasers do not kill. But they do.

Here is one way: The person shot develops tetany, a physiological condition of muscular exhaustion. It can lead to death by respiratory paralysis, according to John Butt, a forensic pathologist in British Columbia who does private consulting in Canada and the United States.

Dr. Butt isn't entirely opposed to taser use but he says police must know its capabilities and limits and restrict taser use. For example, jolts from the stun gun should not be given too quickly in succession because rapid use might contribute to tetany.

The death of the Polish-speaking man at the Vancouver airport was horrifying and seemingly avoidable. He had reportedly spent five hours on a bus in Poland and 13 hours on a plane, and then been held at Canadian customs and immigration for some hours. He couldn't find his mother, who had waited 10 hours for him in vain. He was lost and no one understood him. He began shouting and throwing things, all within a secure area. The mind boggles that humanity is smart enough to invent the taser but unable to think up a way to intervene in this fraught situation without killing the man.

There's a bit of semantics at play, too. Police and the taser industry claim tasers do not directly cause death. The question should be, however, whether a taser used (often more than once) on a person in a state of delirium, and followed up by severe restraint, may cause death. Death might not have come directly but it's come far too often.

There is also a crucial flaw in the logic (or lack thereof) around taser use. Some police say when someone is in a wild, irrational state of delirium, he might die even when not tasered. What they mean is that (apart from the occasional death from the delirium itself) the death occurs after a neck restraint, hog-tying or asphyxia caused when police officers put their knees on the person's chest. Taser advocates defend tasers by arguing that they are no more dangerous than other restraints. But does that mean tasers are safe? Of course not.

The evidence is mounting that tasers are a very dangerous weapon whose use must be severely restrained. It should be a last-resort alternative to deadly force.

The time has come, too, for more serious review of taser incidents to determine if such force was properly used and, if not, whether criminal prosecution is justified. While that may sound harsh, the problem is serious and police officers must realize that they may be morally and legally responsible for taser abuse.

In fairness to police, it may well be that many officers aren't aware of how dangerous these stun guns really are. Recent events should be their wakeup call.

As one who served in the Army in the Viet-Nam era, I recall well the paradigm shift in Army training after the "My Lai massacre." Soldiers were now instructed that there was a duty to disobey an illegal order. That was a bombshell to veteran military personnel but the Army's message was that atrocities would no longer be tolerated and those responsible should and would be held accountable. Enough said.

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