Of course there is a risk to the public when police use conductive weapons like the Taser, just as there is risk associated with using pepper spray, batons, guns — or even hand-to-hand takedowns. There is no technique for arresting a person who does not want to be arrested that does not involve a level of risk.
That’s why we have a properly-trained police force.
Something missing in all the comment around the recent inquiry in B.C. into Taser use has been a proper assessment of risk.
Retired judge Thomas Braidwood reported last week that Tasers can indeed be dangerous, but that on balance, society is safer when police are allowed to use them than it would be if Tasers were banned.
How he arrived at that conclusion is conjecture. Obviously, there have been no large-scale studies on the deadly effects of Tasers under the conditions in which police find themselves needing to use them.
We have generations of experience with firearms, and a lot of knowledge about what happens with the use of billy clubs or batons.
Police can judge what level of risk is presented and gauge an appropriate response using these weapons.
Anecdotal evidence is mounting around the use of Tasers. In Red Deer, one person has died after the weapon was used against him.
To Braidwood’s credit, among the 19 recommendations he made in his inquiry report is that every officer must file a standard report, every time the Taser is used. At regular intervals, information from the weapon’s internal memory is downloaded and compared with the officer’s written reports, to see how they match.
That is a big step forward in gathering the information that everyone needs to determine risk and therefore appropriate response.
If every officer in Canada did just that, there would soon be a large database that researchers could mine to discover if there is a pattern explaining why some people are knocked down by a jolt from a Taser or why others seem able to maintain a battle with officers even after several jolts, or when conditions get more deadly.
First, this would help officers predict the effects of their weapons more accurately.
Second, it would help the public to judge the point at which police response to resisting arrest goes overboard.
For instance, here’s a case that was in the news recently:
A man was stopped by police who thought he was breaking into a house. In fact, the man was trying to get into his own house. In an upward spiral based on racial profiling, personal indignation and plain stubbornness, a university professor got himself thrown into the slammer for a while.
Based on our knowledge of firearms, most of us can accurately judge that police ought not use firearms in this situation. The risks of a terrible injustice are just too high. We really can’t draw that line for Tasers, yet.
So the B.C. government, and now the Alberta government as well, are laying down rules under which police will be allowed to use this weapon.
Other recommendations from Braidwood say police must carry resuscitation paddles in their cars and know how to use them, and that police be told to call in paramedics in higher-risk situations.
But until we know exactly how dangerous Tasers are (to the same level we know how dangerous firearms are), a grave injustice is bound to happen from time to time.
Both police and the public want to see this prevented.
We trust the cops won’t pull a gun on us for speeding on the highway. But they probably will if we exit our car waving a shotgun at them.
If we get indignant or violent toward an officer investigating a home break-in, we all should know the risks involved with an appropriate police response.
Braidwood’s recommendation for police reporting is progress.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.