News & Media

The Deadly Side of Tasers

February 28, 2017

Policing is a difficult job with inherent and constant risk to those tasked with protecting the public and upholding the law. Police safety must be a priority, but at what cost?

Non-lethal force should be and is the standard according to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services Use of Force Guideline, while lethal force is the exception and should only be used where it is necessary to protect against loss of life or serious bodily harm and where there is no reasonable alternative.

This dichotomy used to be more clearly defined when the tools available to officers in the performance of their duties were patently lethal and non-lethal (hand-to-hand combat vs. firearm), however, with the advent of Tasers, law enforcement has purposefully reduced safety risks to officers by inadvertently escalating from non-lethal force to less-lethal force against citizens.

Tasers or Conducted Energy Weapons (CEWs) are hand-held weapons manufactured primarily by Taser International. According to Taser International, more than 850,000 Taser weapons have been sold since 1994 to more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in 107 different countries and are deployed 904 times per day [2015 statistic].

Taser International released a report which stated that 170,000 lives have been saved as a result of Taser deployment instead of the use of justified lethal force. However, according to that report, in only 5.4% of deployments, CEW use was deemed to have averted what would have been justified use of lethal force. Put another way, it seems that only a small percentage of Taser deployments actually replaced necessary lethal force.

Tasers have been in use in Ontario since 2002. Currently, the Toronto Police Service has 545 CEWs in circulation, however, according to their October 2016 Budget Committee they hope to increase this number by 250 units (costing $750,000).

This is unsettling considering that Tasers are not non-lethal, only less-lethal. Sources estimate the number of Taser-related deaths in North America since 2001 at approximately 640 but these figures are often disputed because it is rare for CEWs to be listed as the official cause of death (which is often attributed to heart attack or drug use). It is estimated that in the last 20 years approximately, 35-45 people have died from Taser use in Canada.

Canadian taser-related deaths that have been widely reported in the media:

o Rui Nabico in November 2016 who went into medical distress after being shot with a CEW and was pronounced dead in hospital;

o Kevin Mukuyama in February 2015 who became unresponsive after a CEW was deployed died despite efforts to revive him;

o Maurizio Facchin in June 2014 whose death was determined to be accidental after police deployed a CEW. His cause of death was listed as excited delirium due to a result of cocaine toxicity and cardiomegaly;

o Robert Dziekański in October 2007 who was tasered several times by RCMP including after having been pinned down and handcuffed. The cause of death was listed as cardiac arrhythmia.

According to the Use of Force Guideline, an officer is allowed to use a CEW “if the officer believes a subject is threatening or displaying assaultive behavior or, taking into account the totality of the circumstances, the officer believes there is an imminent need for control of a subject and the officer believes it is reasonably necessary to use a conducted energy weapon … CEW use should be avoided on a handcuffed subject, on a pregnant woman, elderly person, young child or visibly frail person, on sensitive areas of the body (i.e., head, neck, genitals), and on a subject in control of a moving vehicle, bicycle or other conveyance.”

Scientific studies conducted on the effects of CEW use conclude that the medical consequences include eye and brain injuries from barb penetration, convulsive seizures, collapsed lungs, and injury from falls or from the intense muscle contractions including fatal head injuries.

However, scientific and medical studies have also suggested that CEW use does not induce clinically relevant changes in heart rate, blood pressure, or respiration in healthy individuals. The concern with these findings is that CEWs are not tested on unhealthy individuals and an individual’s mental and physical health is not always ascertainable simply by looking at them when split-second decision-making is needed.

What we do know is that people have died as a direct result of Taser deployment. What we do not know is who is susceptible to death by less-lethal force and why they are susceptible. Therefore, each time a CEW is deployed, there is an inherent risk that death may ensue.

Until the scientific community can determine the exact risk factors involved or CEW technology becomes non-lethal instead of less-lethal, deployment of a CEW suggests that there is an acceptable casualty rate in situations where lethal force is not justified.

Robert Karrass is a Toronto based lawyer who specializes in criminal law, professional discipline law, and appeals in all levels of court.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2017, issue of The Lawyers Weekly published by LexisNexis Canada Inc.

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