Ashley Terry (Global National) – Earlier this month, former NASA scientist and Taser inventor Jack Cover died at the age of 88. He saw his invention grow from a modest idea hatched more than 40 years ago into a device that now drives a multi-million-dollar corporation.
Cover also saw the birth of an ongoing controversy surrounding the Taser. While it continues to be used by law enforcement agencies in Canada and the U.S., critics argue that not enough research has been done on safety, and that it is being used too liberally, sometimes with lethal results.
WHAT IT IS
A Taser is an electric stun gun otherwise known as a “conducive energy device” or CED. The gun uses compressed air to propel two insulated wires more than 10 metres, which deliver a jolt of up to 50,000 volts of electricity to a target.
People hit with such jolts experience contractions of muscle tissue that render them immobile. The hand-held weapons allow law enforcement officers to subdue a target without having to use a firearm.
HISTORY & USE
The Arizona-based company Taser International started up in 1993, and began selling the weapon to U.S. citizens. While Tasers are legal in 43 states, they are a prohibited weapon in Canada and can only be sold to law enforcement agencies. Each unit is documented and tracked like a handgun.
The weapons have been in use by Canadian police forces since 1999. By the end of 2008, 73 law enforcement agencies across Canada were using the devices, but under different provincial regulations.
Ontario only allows front-line supervisors and tactical officers to carry Tasers, but they are standard police equipment in Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton.
In July 2008, the Saskatchewan Police Commission announced that the province’s municipal police services would not use Tasers, except for tactical officers.
While Nova Scotia prepares for an inquiry into the recent death of a man who was Tasered by police, the province has restricted use of the weapons to “situations of violent or aggressive resistance or active threat that may cause serious injury.”
The RCMP has more than 1,100 Tasers in use, and the number of incidents involving Tasers has soared in recent years. According to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act by Canwest News Service, RCMP incidents involving the weapons rose to 1,119 in 2006 and 1,414 in 2007, compared with only 597 incidents in 2005.
The Mounties admitted for the first time on Thursday that Tasers pose a risk of death in “acutely agitated” suspects, and have changed their policies to restrict their use to instances where it is necessary to protect an officer or member of the public.
This is a shift from previous claims that Tasers were necessary to control or subdue resistant individuals.
The change comes in the midst an inquiry into the October 14, 2007 death of Robert Dziekanski. The Polish immigrant died at Vancouver International Airport after being shot with a Taser five times by RCMP officers. Dziekanski was reportedly throwing chairs and computer equipment around the customs area of the airport.
That same day, police used a Taser on Quilem Registre in Montreal after he was found driving erratically. Police say Registre was drunk and became aggressive during questioning. He was taken to hospital and died three days later.
From April 2003 and to June 2004, four people died in B.C. after being shot with Tasers, prompting the B.C. Police Complaints Commissioner to launch an investigation. The report stemming from that investigation was released in 2005 and recommended Tasers only be used on suspects who are violent, not merely resistant.
Including Dziekanski and Registre, at least 17 people have died in Canada after being shot with the weapon.