KITCHENER, Ont. — Jeff Zeyen was the first officer in the door.
He was on a drug call, executing a search warrant at the home of a possible drug dealer.
Calls like this are fairly typical — officers show up, the suspect backs away — fairly uneventful.
Not this time.
“The individual burst past me and he had something in his hand and we didn’t know what it was,” Zeyen said. “Most people would comply, but not this guy.”
Zeyen had mere seconds to size up the man: Big and potentially armed and dangerous.
Zeyen pulled out his Taser and fired.
It hit the suspect in the back, incapacitating him for about five seconds — just enough time for officers to move in and cuff the suspect. In his hand they found some drugs.
“It was a wonderful weapon on that day, ” Zeyen said.
The use of conducted energy weapons or stun guns, of which Taser is a brand, has been in the news over the years, suspected of playing a role in the deaths or injuries of people being jolted into submission.
The stun guns deliver a jolt of electricity, which cause an uncontrollable contraction of the muscle tissue. It’s meant to immobilize suspects so police can move in and restrain them.
Recently, Taser International, the U.S. company that makes the weapons, issued a directive recommending the point of aim be lowered from the centre of mass to lower-centre of mass. In other words, avoid chest shots.
The recommendation was issued to avoid controversy about whether the weapons affect the human heart.
Taser said in its bulletin that the “risk of an adverse cardiac event” related to Taser use is “deemed to be extremely low.” However, the company adds that a number of factors come into play, including drug use or underlying cardiac problems that cannot be diagnosed by police officers on the spot.
The bulletin has sparked yet another debate about the use of stun guns.
Since the point-of-aim directive was issued, police forces across Canada told their officers to stop aiming the stun guns at the heart and chest.
They were advised to aim the weapons at the abdomen, legs or back of people they want to subdue.
Waterloo Regional Police Insp. Steve Beckett said officers are reviewing their policy, but will not share any decisions they make with the public.
He did say that regional police are well trained in the use of Tasers.
According to Amnesty International, 26 people have died in Canada between 2003 and 2009 after Tasers were used by police.
John Tackaberry, spokesperson for Amnesty International Canada, said stun guns may not be the direct cause of death, but “they are a contributing factor. That’s why we say these deaths are related.”
Amnesty International Canada has been calling for a suspension of Taser use until questions are answered about the effect they have on suspects.
If that doesn’t happen, Tackaberry said the group would like the weapon moved up the use-of-force continuum and used only in extremely dangerous situations.
Directing officers to aim the Tasers elsewhere is not solution, he said.
“It’s not where they aim, ” Tackaberry said. “It’s the interaction of the Taser. It’s the interaction of the voltage.”
Steve Tuttle, vice-president of communications for Taser International, said in an email to The Waterloo Region Record that “no medical examiner or coroner to date has listed the Taser as a cause of death or contributory in Canada.”
He said although no use-of-force device is risk-free, medical experts and government reports “have concluded that Taser systems are among the safer use-of-force alternatives to subdue violent individuals who could harm law-enforcement officers, innocent citizens or themselves.”
But there are still some unanswered questions. An inquiry is underway in Halifax into the death of Howard Hyde, a 45-year-old who had not been taking his medication to deal with schizophrenia when he was arrested for an alleged assault.
He died Nov. 27, 2007, after two struggles with guards, which happened about 30 hours after he had been Tasered as he tried to escape from the station.
A medical examiner later concluded Hyde died from excited delirium stemming from paranoid schizophrenia.
Another high-profile inquiry was held after the death of Polish traveller Robert Dziekanski, who died after being Tasered five times by the RCMP at Vancouver International Airport.
Full details of the incident came to light after a video, recorded by a member of the public, was released to the media. The RCMP officers involved in the death have been widely criticized for their handling of the incident.
An Ontario woman helped start a blog called Truth not Tasers www.truthnottasers.blogspot.com in memory of her brother, who died after being Tasered in Vancouver.
Robert Bagnall was Tasered in June 2004 by police who had responded to a 911 call about a man rampaging in a hotel washroom. He died later that night. An inquest concluded he died of a restraint-associated cardiac arrested due to acute cocaine intoxication and psychosis.
Still, Beckett said stun guns “are very good weapons for us …”
“We’ve had less injuries with conducted energy weapons than with anything else. We’ve been very successful with it.” Only front-line supervisors and tactile officers are allowed to use Tasers, which shoot two probes with tiny barbs at the end meant to penetrate clothing. The probes shoot out at about 65 metres a second and deliver a quick jolt of electricity, which cause the muscles to contract.
The Taser can also be used in the drive-stun method, in which an officer subdues a suspect simply by touching him with the device and not firing off probes. The only difference in the two methods is that the probes can be shot from a distance while the drive-stun method requires the officer to be in close range.
Whatever option is chosen depends on the situation and the actions of the suspect at the time. Much of the success they have with the weapons comes from simply showing them.
“We tell them we have it and unless they co-operate we’ll use it,” said Const. Tim Lederman, who trains officers every year on how to properly use the weapon. “Just displaying it is usually enough.”
In 2008, there were 26 occasions when just showing the stun gun was enough to control the situation.
They were used 29 times — 16 in the drive-stun method and 13 in the probe method. One of the drive stuns proved ineffective because the suspect wasn’t affected by it. One of the probe discharges was also ineffective because it got tangled in the suspect’s clothes.
One suspect was injured in 2008 after the probe lodged into the cartilage between the ribs. It was removed by the doctor.
So far in 2009, simply displaying the stun gun has been effective 15 times.
They have been used 11 times this year. The drive stun was used five times and ineffective on two occasions because the suspect wasn’t affected by it. The probes were used six times. Twice they didn’t work because the probes failed to penetrate the suspects clothing. No injures have been reported so far in 2009.
Zeyen and Lederman were both Tasered during training. They agree it’s one of the best tools to subdue a suspect. Even pepper spray isn’t as effective because, depending on the suspect, they can continue to put up a fight, they say.
As Zeyen says, the Taser is simply “another tool in the tool box,” for officers to use when safety is in question.