Tasers are Lethal Police Weapons, But Now They'll Be Researched in Canada

Medical study will look at Taser research gaps to better understand stun guns

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press – Mon, 14 Feb, 2011

    A police-issued Taser gun is displayed at the Victoria police station in Victoria, B.C. May 7, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

    OTTAWA - Gaps in the research on how Taser stun guns affect people will be one focus of a federal program aimed at better understanding the powerful weapons used for years by Canadian police.

    Other studies will look at test procedures to ensure Tasers operate properly and ways to evaluate new weapons police might adopt, records obtained under the Access to Information Act show.

    The $1.8-million Taser research program is overseen by the federal Centre for Security Science, a joint initiative of the Public Safety Department and Defence Research and Development Canada. The effort is slated to run through 2012-13.

    Civil liberties advocates say the work is overdue given long-standing questions about stun gun safety.

    "It's certainly welcome, we just wish it had been there a lot earlier," said Hilary Homes, a human rights campaigner with Amnesty International Canada.

    "We hope it moves ahead on time — ahead of time, if possible."

    David Eby of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association said it's positive that government recognizes the need for study, but he argued some topics have already been researched elsewhere.

    "What I don't understand is why they're only doing this work now."

    Almost a decade after police forces began using the Taser, the law enforcement community is still grappling with its effects.

    In an effort to see common threads, the watchdog over the RCMP looked at the 10 cases, spanning 2003 to 2008, in which someone died in Mountie custody after a Taser had been used.

    It urged the police force not to hog-tie people and called on the Mounties to better train officers on identifying, dealing with, and using force on the mentally ill and those with drug and alcohol problems.

    Martin Champoux, a spokesman for Defence Research and Development Canada, acknowledges a need for more research to give policy makers and the policing community "scientific methodologies and tools that they need to make sure that they've got this right."

    A panel of biomedical experts will deliver a report by August on existing research about the physiological effects of the Taser. That will help identify gaps and lay the groundwork for a strategy to fill them, Champoux said.

    Another study will develop test procedures and performance measures to ensure Tasers are operating according to the manufacturer's specifications. Police forces will then be able to use it as a tool for checking their Tasers, he said.

    The program will also include development of a protocol for "testing the next big thing" police might adopt to control suspects, Champoux added.

    Though it is unclear what that might be, there has already been chatter about experimental weapons that emit sound, heat and noxious smells to disperse crowds or incapacitate would-be attackers.

    "Nobody's brought anything to us to evaluate in the policing context," Champoux said.

    Holmes applauded the move to create an approval process, saying it could have helped avoid the worldwide furor over safety of the Taser. "Some of that might have been mitigated if there had been a proper approvals framework in the first place."

    In May, the Mounties introduced a new Taser policy, saying they would fire them at people only when they're hurting someone or clearly about to do so.

    The directive mirrored a recommendation from a B.C. public inquiry on Taser use prompted by the 2007 death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport.