19 November 2007

Shocking Denial

An item caught my eye today in the Globe and Mail concerning the tragic death of Robert Dziekański, the man who was effectively executed by Taser, courtesy of RCMP officers at Vancouver Airport. The Globe published a statement attributed to Tom Smith, the founder and chairman of Arizona-based TASER International Inc. Among other things, Smith denies that the tasering was the cause of Dziekański's untimely demise, saying,
The video of the incident at the Vancouver airport indicates that the subject was continuing to fight well after the TASER application. This continuing struggle could not be possible if the subject died as a result of the TASER device electrical current causing cardiac arrest. His continuing struggle is proof that the TASER device was not the cause of his death. Further, the video clearly shows symptoms of excited delirium, a potentially fatal condition marked by symptoms of exhaustion and mania such as heavy breathing, profuse sweating, confusion, disorientation and violence toward inanimate objects.

We are taken aback by the number of media outlets that have irresponsibly published conclusive headlines blaming the TASER device and/or the law enforcement officers involved as the cause of death before completion of the investigation. These sensationalistic media reports completely ignore the earmark symptoms of excited delirium shown in the video. TASER International is transmitting over 60 legal demand letters requiring correction of these false and misleading headlines and will take other actions as appropriate. These unsubstantiated, false headlines mislead the public and could adversely influence public policy...
As most people know by now, the RCMP were neither completely truthful, nor forthcoming, about the incident until the video surfaced, and they made every attempt to make the video disappear from the public eye until the videographer, Paul Pritchard, went to court to rescue the only real piece of hard evidence. There is much to be said about the RCMP officers' culpability in the death: from the near-immediate use of what has turned out to be deadly force, to the duration of the electrocution, to their reluctance to call for medical assistance until after they were sure the man was dead. But I'll let others discuss the police response.

Mr. Smith's response is another matter altogether. He assigns the cause of death by what he calls, "excited delirium." Of course, Mr. Smith is not medically trained. So-called "excited delirium" is a completely fabricated, and not medically recognized, condition that has been applied exclusively to deaths of people who are in police custody, typically when excessive force is being used. In most cases, it is a pseudo-medical, postmortem descriptor that is most frequently hung on death associated with Taser. That the press is all over this apparently excessive use of force is neither irresponsible nor "sensationalistic." Reporting on what might be inappropriate use of force resulting in death is what the press is supposed to do so that the public, represented by elected officials and duly charged civil servants, can appropriately decide public policy.

How dangerous is the Taser? Despite the fact that it has been tested many times on police officers who will ultimately administer the electroshocks, the fact is that all human tests have been done under controlled conditions, with the victim being prepared for the shock. Clearly, the only tests that appropriately mimic field conditions are those that have resulted in several hundred deaths throughout North America. How lethal is it? According to the Wikipedia article on Electroshock Weapons, "M-26 Taser models produce a peak current of 18 amperes in pulses that last for around 10 microseconds... Electrical current above 10 mA at 60Hz AC is considered to be potentially lethal to humans..." The Tasers in question apparently deliver this current at 50,000 volts. The article goes on to describe that the actual current flowing through the body depends on a number of physical factors relating to conductivity - suffice it to say that when someone is excited or in distress, their physical conductivity of electricity increases, thereby increasing the weapon's lethal potential.

It is not surprising that Mr. Smith is taking an aggressive legal stance against those who cast his product as an aggressive, offensive weapon, thereby stirring a review of public policy. Indeed, the Toronto Police and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary have put large orders of Tasers on hold. Mr. Smith's business stands to lose a tremendous amount of revenue if a public outcry against the Taser takes hold. However, I would say that this is largely a problem of Mr. Smith's (company's) own making. They have marketed the Taser as being relatively safe, and convinced police forces around the world that it is a better alternative for subduing a non-compliant suspect. If police officers were re-educated to place the Taser alongside their service revolver in the hierarchy of force, and required to document its use as rigorously as they must do when they fire a bullet, the public would be better served and better protected. And, Mr. Smith's protests notwithstanding, serving and protecting is the business of the police, and therefore, the business of the public.

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