Strip away Tom Smith’s corporate persona as chair of Taser International Inc., and you’ll find an unabashed Star Trek fan.
When Smith fielded questions from the media after defending the 50,000-volt stun gun before a provincial inquiry on May 12, the Arizona-based executive couldn’t help but make a reference to the TV science-fiction series that he and his brother and company cofounder, Rick, grew up watching.
Police use of Tasers divides Canadians
> Fifty percent of Canadians believe Tasers are a good law-enforcement tool.
> Almost as many (45 percent) are concerned about the device and feel “Tasers are a problem because they are more likely to be used indiscriminately than police firearms, and in some cases kill people”.
> Fifty-nine percent of Vancouver residents consider Tasers a problem, against 38 percent who feel they are a good tool in the hands of police.
> Concern over Tasers is more likely to be felt by immigrants and supporters of the federal opposition parties.
> Sixty-five percent of Conservative party supporters approve of Tasers.
> Tasers are considered a valuable law-enforcement tool by 60 percent of people in the Prairie provinces.
> Fifty-seven percent of Canadians with higher incomes support Tasers.
> In the past few months, 90 percent of Canadians have heard something about the use of Tasers by law-enforcement officials. In B.C., 97 percent of residents have heard something about the stun guns.
Source: Survey results of 2,026 Canadians aged 18 and older, conducted in French and English, and released on April 19, 2008, by the Toronto-based Environics Research Group. On a national basis, the results are accurate to within plus or minus 2.2 percentage points in 95 out of 100 samples.
“We believe today we are the wired version of the Star Trek phaser, trying to get to that point where we’re using the minimum amount of force necessary to end the confrontation as safely as possible,” Smith told reporters at SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in downtown Vancouver.
In the Star Trek universe, phasers are energy-beam weapons that can be set to stun, kill, or even vaporize an enemy. Smith claimed that in the real world and in the hands of law enforcers, Tasers are nonlethal devices that are designed only to incapacitate a person at the receiving end of two metal probes attached to wires.
Earlier in the day, Smith told the inquiry, being conducted by former B.C. Court of Appeal justice Thomas Braidwood, that Tasers aren’t entirely risk-free because they cause people to fall down. However, he stressed that the use of the stun gun actually prevents other injuries and even deaths caused by other weapons, primarily firearms.
But according to Vancouver lawyer and police watchdog Cameron Ward, Tasers have been involved in far too many deaths across North America since they were introduced.
“Many of those deaths, if not most of them, remained unexplained,” Ward told the Georgia Straight at the sidelines of the inquiry, which was ordered following the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski after he was tasered at the airport.
Ward represents the family of Robert Bagnell, who died in June 2004 after he was shot with a Taser by the Vancouver police.
According to a blog maintained by Bagnell’s sister, Patti Gillman, 344 North Americans, including 20 Canadians, have died since 1999 after they were shocked with the device. “Twenty-seven people have died in the U.S. since the beginning of this year,” the TNT—Truth”¦Not Tasers blog states. “Seventy-seven North Americans (that we know of) died in 2007, five of them Canadian.”
Amid often-conflicting claims about the safety of Tasers, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published an editorial on May 1 panning Taser International–funded studies indicating that the weapon is safe.
“They even set up demonstration booths where, like some bizarre extreme sport, people line up voluntarily to experience a taser shock for themselves,” the editorial stated. “Notably, volunteers are almost always shocked in the back and not in the chest, where the electrodes might cross the heart, nor do the volunteers experience the repeated and sustained shocks often used in the field, a feature that has led the United Nations to classify the Taser as a form of torture.”
The CMAJ also stated that new and independent research is needed to settle the issue of whether or not Tasers kill.
On May 12, Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh also appeared before the Braidwood. As B.C.’s attorney general, Dosanjh approved the introduction of the stun gun in the province in 1999. Dosanjh told the inquiry that he is “absolutely disappointed” that back then he was briefed that Tasers were safe and that their use had been thoroughly researched. “Now we know that is not true,” he said.
Dosanjh told reporters after his testimony that “all public officials are at the mercy of those who advise them.”
Although noting that there is “absolutely no conclusive evidence that Tasers don’t kill”, Dosanjh also said that he doesn’t want to “take away Tasers from the police forces”.
“I want them properly restrained in terms of the use,” he said. “I want the police officers really properly trained, and I want better research, and more and better reporting. If they don’t do any of those things, I believe that there ought to be a moratorium placed on the use of Tasers.”
Outside the Thomas Braidwood inquiry, three key players offered their views about the use of Tasers
Vancouver South MP, Liberal public-safety critic, and former B.C. premier and attorney general
“I think that ultimately the Taser is a device that [police] may be required to use under appropriate circumstances. The fact is that the RCMP and other police forces need to have stronger national standards for using these kinds of devices. We need to do more research. You want to know under what conditions they ought to use it and what the guidelines ought to be.”
Chairman of the board and cofounder, Taser International Inc.
“We’ve done as long as 45 seconds in human exposures. We’re not seeing increased risks. I was the first person ever hit by our technology, in 1993. I’ve been tasered numerous times. We’ve had a number of studies that have been ongoing. I encourage studies. It just again goes back to this being the most studied nonlethal technology available today in the world.”
Vancouver lawyer and police watchdog who represents Robert Bagnell’s family
“The device is being used far too frequently, and not as an alternative to lethal force but as a tool for compliance. Before 2000, police were able to deal with nonviolent people in distress by talking to them and, if necessary, by using soft physical force. What we’re finding is that they’re using it as a weapon of first resort. They’re using it before making any attempt to talk people down or subdue them in conventional ways.”