Cover

Innovation

KEN MACQUEEN August 23 2004
Cover

Innovation

KEN MACQUEEN August 23 2004

WHEN STUN GUNS GO BAD

After five deaths in one year, police chiefs order an investigation into Taser use

Police

GRAHAM F. SCOTT

EARLY LAST WEEK, high and paranoid on cocaine, Samuel Truscott barricaded himself in his Kingston, Ont., bedroom with a knife and a baseball bat, threatening to hurt himself. Police were called, and when pepper spray failed to subdue the 43-year-old man, he was zapped through an open window with a Taser—the sophisticated stun gun that disrupts muscle control and is used by more than 5,000 police forces worldwide. After being disarmed and searched, Truscott was taken to hospital for an evaluation of his mental health. Within hours he suffered a seizure and died.

Two days later, Ontario’s deputy chief coroner reported the cause of death was a drug overdose—not the stun gun. Still, Dr. James Cairns made it clear he was not yet ready to dismiss Tasers as a factor. How could he? Truscott was the fifth Canadian to die in the past year after being shocked with a police Taser. Formal investigations and coroner inquiries are ramping up in Brampton, Ont., as well as in Vancouver. (In both instances, drugs seemed to have played some role.) And now the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has asked for a full review of the science and techniques of Taser use in Canada and around the world.

All this heightens a controversy that has been on the boil in the United States, where more than 50 deaths have been associated with the device over the past four years. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have issued calls to suspend their use. But Steve Tuttle, VP of communications at Arizona-based Taser International Inc., says such doubts are groundless, citing the more than 50,000 incident-free uses in the field as proof the devices are safe. “Our technology is explicitly designed not to cause fatalities,” he says. “We’ve still not been listed as a direct cause of death.”

That’s true—in only a few cases has a Taser been tagged as a contributing factor in a police suspect’s death, and it’s never been labelled the direct cause. But there is also little scientific consensus on the actual safety

TASERS IN CANADA THE MAIN USERS

RCMP _640

MUNICIPAL FORCES_

Edmonton Police Services_134

Vancouver Police Department_36

Ottawa-Carleton Regional

Police Services_24

CORRECTIONAL SERVICES_

B.C. Sheriff’s Service_55

Court Services Branch,

Federal Ministry of Attorney General_53

Alberta Solicitor General’s

Correctional Branch_HI

NUMBER OF POLICE AND CORRECTIONAL SERVICES DEPLOYING Tasers in Canada: 62, In U.S.: over 5,400 Number of devices in use in Canada: 1,193 In U.S.: over 100,000_

NUMBER OF DEATHS ASSOCIATED

WITH TASER USE:_

Five in Canada, 50 in U.S., over four years

of the device, particularly when it’s used on addicts or people with heart disease or pacemakers. Dr. Andrew Podgorski tested

several early-model stun guns in 1989 at Canada’s National Research Council. He found that pigs with implanted pacemakers could die from the electrical shocks. “I published this in a report,” says Podgorski. “We suggested to police that maybe they shouldn’t use the stun guns because nobody knows who has an implanted pacemaker.”

Taser International says it has made significant improvements since then. And police forces believe in the Taser in part because standard training encourages officers to test the jolt on themselves. “It made me feel like I had no control over anything,” wrote one officer of the experience, “I could not fight back.” Another simply wrote, “Hurt like hell. Dropped like a stone.” Edmonton police are one of 62 Canadian forces, including the RCMP, employing Tasers. Const. Shawna Goodkey, who works in the Officer Safety Unit, says the device “actually decreases injury for our subject and our officers out there because they can control somebody within five seconds.” Tasers work by shooting two small metal probes, attached to wires, into the body from up to six metres away. If both probes make contact—even through several layers of clothes—then the circuit is completed and the person’s muscles are immobilized by 50,000 volts of electricity. That sounds like a lot—it is—but a Taser jolt is not the same as sticking your finger in a light socket and receiving a continuous shock. The Taser’s zap is intermittent, and lasts five seconds—just enough to force muscles into a rigid state.

The argument for Tasers is that they’re a preferable alternative to guns, at least in situations where suspects are not armed. But police allow there are no silver bullets. Any time force is used, something bad can happen. The question where it comes to stun guns : when is it worth the risk? Dll