January 18, 2007

The Shocking Truth about Tasers

The shocking truth about Tasers
Police announce controversial stun gun program. By Chris Arsenault

When Nick Scott heard about the Fredericton police department's decision to spend $40,000 on 12 new Tasers, it brought back some bad memories.

"Getting shocked with a Taser is like somebody injecting anxiety into your heart," said Scott, a 23-year-old sociology student at St. Thomas University.

In 2001, police tasered Scott a dozen times while he attended an anti-globalization protest in Halifax. Like other human rights activists, he has serious concerns about the new toys taxpayers recently purchased for Fredericton's boys in blue.

"We are calling for the use [of Tasers] to be suspended, pending adequate study of the device itself," said Hilary Homes, spokesperson for Amnesty International Canada. "In a handful of cases, Tasers have been implicated as direct or indirect causes of death in the U.S. They have also been implicated in some excessive use of force cases," said Homes.

Police officials contend that Tasers haven't directly contributed to any deaths and have actually made the public safer.

Fredericton police Corporal Martin Gaudet has himself been tasered. "It just contracts your muscles. It [getting tasered] isn't painful," said Cpl. Gaudet, who thinks the feeling of a stun gun, which can deliver up to 50,000 volts of electricity, is comparable to getting shocked by a light switch.

"I think that being shocked by a light switch is painful and being shocked by a Taser is probably 25 times as painful," said Scott while shopping for eggs and hollandaise sauce at a Fredericton supermarket.

Recent Taser purchases come on the heels of a two-year trial program where members of the police emergency response team and other officers were equipped with stun guns.

"The test program just made us realize that if we hadn't had Tasers, either the suspect or the officer would have been injured in various arrest situations," said Cpl. Gaudet.

Tasers are certainly better than guns when it comes to subduing people, but that's hardly a shocking product endorsement.

"Each Taser burn had two small dots side by side," said Scott, who had marks for three weeks after his electrifying ordeal. "The marks looked like vampire bites, in terms of how they were spaced."

Moncton resident Kevin Geldart died after RCMP tasered him outside a nightclub. His death will be examined at a coroner's inquest beginning in February.

"I can tell you from the studies forwarded to us that the electrical device hasn't been a contributor to a fatality," said Cpl. Gaudet.

"There is a condition called excited delirium where the body is in such a state that the heart rate is up, respiration is up," said Gaudet, who blames deaths in Taser incidents on people using drugs or dealing with unrelated health problems like heart disease.

This is where the research gets hazy. Taser advocates, like various police forces and TASER international, the Arizona based company who manufacture the product, argue that Tasers shocks don't, onto themselves, kill people. Human rights activists beg to differ, or at least want more information.

"The effects on vulnerable groups, those with weakened systems do to drug use or health problems, need to be better understood," says Amnesty International's Homes.

In July 2005, a Chicago medical examiner ruled that the death of a man in February 2005 was the result of being shot with a Taser by Chicago police.

According to some, this was the first time a senior medical official directly blamed a death on Taser shocks. The victim had a lot of methamphetamine in his system.

Since 2001, more than 50 people in North America have died after receiving Taser shots. It is difficult to scientifically prove that Taser shots caused these deaths, especially since current research is incomplete, but many people, in New Brunswick and other jurisdictions, are rightfully apprehensive about the new police weapons.

"They [police officers making an arrest] don't ask someone if they have a heart problem before tasering them," says Scott. "I think it's wrong to assume these weapons aren't lethal."

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