The joint award-winning project by CBC/Radio-Canada and The Canadian Press produced a multimedia analysis of Taser stun guns and their use by the RCMP. This endeavour in 2008 created a multitude of stories for newspapers, websites, radio and television – including the following exclusive reports from The Canadian Press.
Part I: Taser Secrecy
Part II: The Taser Gun death of Robert Dziekanski
Part III: Multiple RCMP Taser zaps on rise despite warning
Part IV: RCMP-Taser-QuickFacts
Part V: One in three hit with RCMP Tasers need medical care
Part V: One in three hit with RCMP Tasers need medical care (published June 17, 2008).
By Jim Bronskill and Sue Bailey – The Canadian Press
OTTAWA – Nearly one-third of the people the RCMP has zapped with Tasers needed medical treatment afterward, prompting new questions about a potent weapon police consider a safer alternative to conventional guns.
A joint investigation by The Canadian Press and CBC-Radio-Canada of more than 3,200 incidents in which Mounties fired the powerful electronic devices reveals more than 28 per cent were later examined by medical personnel.
The figures, covering the last six years, ranged from 16 per cent of cases in Nunavut to almost 42 per cent in Prince Edward Island.
Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died last October after being stunned twice with an RCMP Taser and pinned to the floor of the Vancouver International Airport. An unsettling video of his last moments, viewed by millions of Canadians, ignited fresh debate about the safety of the 50,000-volt weapon used by scores of Canadian police services.
The Taser can be fired from a distance of several metres and cycled repeatedly once steel probes puncture a suspect’s skin or clothing. The guns can also be used in up-close stun mode – a sensation likened to leaning on a hot stove – resulting in painful blisters or burns.
Of 3,226 people the RCMP hit with a Taser from 2002 through last year, 910 were examined in a hospital or other medical facility. The data also show the Mounties zapped people with Tasers more than once in almost half of cases despite an internal policy that warns repeated stuns may be hazardous.
The findings emerge from an analysis of standard forms RCMP officers must file each time they pull a Taser out of its holster. Thousands of heavily censored pages – stripped of names and other personal details – were obtained under the Access to Information Act.
Secrecy around the extent of stun-gun injuries makes it difficult to get a true picture of the cuts, burns, head injuries – or worse – suffered by those hit with Tasers.
RCMP policy says that if the Taser is fired from a distance, a member certified in first aid may remove the pointy probes. “It is not necessary to have a medically trained person examine the individual, unless a probe is lodged in a sensitive part of the body, such as the eye or the groin, or the individual’s physical condition warrants medical attention.”
Officers are also told to make note of injuries, photograph them and obtain a statement from the person.
In general, officers are supposed to advise those zapped that the effects will be short-term, but also ensure they receive medical care “if any unusual reactions occur or if you think that he or she is in distress.”
However, there are doubts about whether everyone adversely affected by a Taser received the necessary medical attention. Germain Quesnel of Richmond, B.C., says he suffered a heart attack behind bars after being repeatedly Tasered by the RCMP in March 2003.
Quesnel called police over an altercation he was having with his step-son. The Mounties arrested Quesnel, shocked him several times to get him out of the car, then again twice in a police cell.
“I was blue and swelled up about two inch cause the Taser guy was not just Tasering me, he was ramming that Taser like a baseball bat,” said Quesnel, now 47.
He complained of chest pains and asked for a doctor or an ambulance. An officer thought he was feigning distress to get an early release. “I was telling them that I thought I was having a heart attack but they didn’t care, they didn’t listen to me, they didn’t do nothing.”
In the morning, eight hours after his chest pains began, he was taken to hospital where doctors confirmed he had indeed suffered a heart attack.
An internal RCMP investigation found one of two officers who shocked Quesnel used excessive force by firing the stun gun at him in the cell. It also said the officer should have got some medical attention for him sooner.
Dr. Paul Dorian, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, says police officers need to assume they may hurt someone when they use the Taser and treat all injuries seriously – “even if they are accused criminals.”
Murray Mollard of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association said the latest figures suggest “there are safety risks” associated with the stun gun’s use. He said Tasers, considered by the RCMP to be an intermediate means of force – along with pepper spray and the baton – should be closer to a regular firearm on the force scale.
Paul Kennedy, head of the commission for complaints against the RCMP, will release a report Wednesday expected to echo his interim call for stricter controls on Mountie Taser use. On Tuesday, Kennedy met with Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, who requested the report last year, to discuss the findings.
The RCMP has declined to discuss the force’s use of Tasers until Kennedy’s report is issued.
Canadian police forces tout the stun guns as a safer alternative to the lethal force of a regular firearm.
Every police officer in the country should have a Taser, said Tony Cannavino, president of the Canadian Association of Police, which represents thousands of front-line officers across the country.
“We’re strong believers that it’s a very important tool.”
Police need solid research, guidance and proper training – including recertification every two years – in order to be sure the stun guns are used properly, Cannavino added.
“Police officers don’t want to injure people, they don’t want to kill anybody. If they could save lives or save injuries, that’s what police officers are there to do.”
Earlier this year, the RCMP decided to stop releasing details of injuries suffered by Tasered people, citing the need to protect the personal privacy as well as the confidentiality of investigations.
However, previously disclosed RCMP Taser reports for the period 2002 to 2005 reveal glimpses of more than two dozen injuries – most of them skin burns – caused by the stun gun. In many of these cases, the subject was not taken to hospital.
“Upper probe penetrated bone matter,” noted one Mountie after an unarmed suspect zapped for raising a ruckus in Ponoka, Alta., was hit with the sharp energy-conducting Taser hooks in May 2004. “Probe twisted on impact. Required additional force to be removed.”
Others complained of shortness of breath after being stunned, while another hit their head on asphalt.
A suicidal Prince George, B.C., resident wielding a butcher knife was hooked in the upper left lip when police responded with a Taser jolt in July 2003.
Critics have called for a moratorium on the electronic weapons until sufficient independent research has been done.
Twenty people in Canada have died after being Tasered.
Arizona-based manufacturer Taser International points out that the weapons have never been directly blamed for a death, though they have been cited as contributing factors.
© 2009 The Canadian Press
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