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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 November 2007, 13:45 GMT
Taser death sparks Canada debate
Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

Police restrain Mr Dziekanski at Vancouver Airport, 14 October 2007. Credit CBC
Police pinned down Mr Dziekanski

The use of Taser guns by the police is under fierce debate in Canada.

It follows the case of a Polish immigrant who died after officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police twice stunned him with Taser guns and secured him to the floor.

After remaining in a secure part of Vancouver airport for nearly nine hours, Robert Dziekanski, who spoke no English, began shouting and throwing furniture before the police officers were called.

The final moments of Mr Dziekanski's life were captured on video by another traveller and released to the media, causing public outrage.

Investigations have started in Canada into the way the police handled the incident and their seemingly contradictory version of events.

Rise in incidents

The death at Vancouver airport has led to frenzied media scrutiny of police Tasers, with several subsequent cases making headlines

In one incident, a man from Nova Scotia died in police custody the day after a confrontation with police during which he was shocked with a Taser.

We see the Taser as a device that, in the hands of a properly trained officer, can save lives"
Bill Blair, Toronto police chief

His wife later claimed he had not taken medication for his mental illness.

The increased use of Tasers by North American police forces over just the past four years has been dramatic.

In Canada alone it is estimated there are 2,000 to 3,000 of the weapons available to officers.

'Last alternative'

Police forces have approved the use of Tasers because it allows officers to subdue violent or disruptive individuals without having to resort to using firearms.

Bill Blair, the police chief of Canada's largest city Toronto, has equipped all his senior tactical officers with Tasers.

He says there may be lessons that can be learnt from the death of Mr Dziekanski, but agrees with most other police chiefs across the country that Tasers are an effective, last-resort alternative to lethal force.

"Like all force options, Tasers have certain inherent risks," says Mr Blair.

Taser gun on show
A taser gun used in the US

"But we see the Taser as a device, that in the hands of a properly trained officer, who is fully accountable for its use and well-instructed on when its appropriate to use, can save lives."

Mr Blair acknowledges that many of the people they encounter may be suffering from pre-existing medical conditions, mental illness or drug use.

But he says that many of those people are at risk of serious illness, regardless of whether the Taser is deployed or not.

And he points out there are no known deaths from Taser incidents in Toronto.

Safety concerns

The same claim cannot be made across the country.

Although it is hard to establish any direct link to Tasers, since 2003 at least 18 people have died in Canada after police officers shocked them with the weapon.

We're not confident there's enough information for police officers to safely use this weapon
Amnesty International Canada

In the aftermath of the Vancouver Airport incident, the Canadian branch of Amnesty International is calling for the immediate suspension of the use of the weapons, until a full independent review on their safety is completed.

"We're not confident that there's enough information for police officers to safely use this weapon," says Amnesty Canada's John Tackaberry.

Amnesty is not calling for a ban on Taser use, and recognises its value as an alternative to firearm use. But it is concerned about a condition called excited delirium.

This is described as an agitated state, when a person experiences an irregular heartbeat and suddenly dies. It can affect people with mental disabilities as well as those on drugs such as cocaine.

But critics argue that excited delirium is not an officially recognised medical condition.

Debate in US

The Canadian debate is being watched closely across the border in the United States, where Tasers have long been controversial.

Since the Vancouver Airport incident last month, at least six Americans have died after being stunned with the weapon by police.

As in Canada, there seems to be a patchwork of different rules and regulations governing the weapon's use, with no coherent national policy.

Unlike Canada, citizens, as well as police officers, are permitted to carry the weapon for their own protection.

A video has appeared on YouTube of a recent incident in Utah, when a traffic police officer appeared to shock a driver with a Taser for refusing to sign his speeding ticket.

But as in Canada, there is no agreement about whether Tasers can be held directly responsible for the deaths of victims, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions.

The US Justice Department will release a much anticipated report next year on the safety of the weapons.

taser diagram



SEE ALSO
Canadian stun gun death on video
15 Nov 07 |  Americas

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