Fitting that an Amnesty International report recommending the banning of taser guns came out this week on the very day that a certain international-resolution-flouting president arrived in Ottawa to thousands of unwelcomers.
Last month, the Toronto police services asked for a budget increase of $1.1 million to purchase 498 additional tasers. Use of the weapon is currently restricted to the emergency task force, but the new proposal would see 399 uniformed and 99 non-uniformed officers - nearly a sixth of the force - armed with the devices.
When the proposal came to the police services board, Deputy Chief Steven Reesor argued that the taser is life-saving, providing an alternative to lethal force. He proceeded to show members a video presentation of the ETF shocking an armed man to subdue him. There was also footage of Toronto police officers doubling over onto gym mats after being shocked during a training session - but it should be noted that the training sessions involve a quick zap, not the several five-second bursts that a target in the street is more likely to be subjected to.
Reesor was unsettlingly adamant that he be tasered in the presence of the board to demonstrate the weapon's safety.
Safety is understandably disputed when it comes to a cartridge of compressed nitrogen shooting two wired prongs at a maximum range of 21 feet, delivering 50,000 volts of electricity, inducing a temporary seizure of all muscles.
Perhaps the most telling fact about tasers is that currently there's no independent scientific research attesting to their safety. The only tests done on the current M26 and X26 models (the X26 has lower amperage) were performed by employees of the manufacturer, Taser International. These consisted of one attack on a single pig and later on five dogs. The results, which they say justify their claims that the weapon is rightly classified as "less lethal," have not been peer-reviewed.
The new Amnesty report isn't buying this claim. Since 2001, the organization says, there have been 65 deaths following the use of tasers in the United States, as well as nine similar deaths in Canada - where the weapons are less widely employed - since mid-2003.
None of the deaths has been directly attributed to the shocks themselves. However, all those who died did so shortly after being subjected to a taser blast and were either intoxicated, experiencing heart difficulties or in states of emotional distress. In the U.S., two pregnant women miscarried after being shocked.
As a result, Amnesty International calls for a ban on the weapons until independent safety studies are conducted, focusing especially on the dangers posed to "vulnerable populations." As well, the org recommends that all firing information recorded in taser microchips be downloaded and made publicly available.
Some of Amnesty's findings have been noted elsewhere. A 2001 article in British medical journal the Lancet, for example, strongly suggested that a temporary condition resulting from an acid-base imbalance in the body can lead to ventricular arrhythmia, a form of heart failure. The taser's ability to increase muscle activity while decreasing respiration could bring on the condition.
Taser use guidelines in the UK are similar to those for firearms. Elsewhere, as AI points out in its report, a false sense that the weapons are safer than guns has led to itchy trigger fingers where they're in use by law enforcers.
Press reports from the U.S. show some bizarre usage of the device. A schoolgirl was shot with a taser when she refused to return to school; a 14-year-old boy was shocked repeatedly when he would not relinquish his Game Boy to the school principal.
As Amnesty points out, the weapon has also been used to blitz emotionally distraught people in Canada, including two suicidal men. One of them, Roman Andreichikov, died after being shocked by Vancouver police. The other, shocked six times though he was not resisting police or even breaking the law, charged a British Columbia RCMP officer with assault. The officer was acquitted.
Lawyer Peter Rosenthal is strongly opposed to the weapon's use. I inform him that, according to the police's own figures, the ETF has found reason to use tasers a total of 273 times since July 2002.
"I think that alone proves my point," he responds. "They would not possibly have shot people that many times.
"They say they'll use tasers instead of firearms, but they made a similar claim with pepper spray," he reminds me. "That hasn't been the case. They still use firearm s , but now they use pepper spray in situations where they never would have used a firearm."
Remember those images of APEC protestors being pepper-sprayed by the RCMP in 1997, and what a public outcry this provoked? Now, a few years later, the spray - also associated with deaths - has become a routine danger at political actions.
Tasers now show signs of becoming routine at demonstrations. In Toronto, an activist was shocked by the ETF when exiting the Mission Press squat at Yonge and Dundas during the Tory Convention protests of March 2002. More than one officer casually brandished the weapon while accompanying marchers.
Police departments routinely claim that tasers fill a gap in their "continuum of force" between night sticks and Glocks, but as more high-tech weaponry is introduced, all we see are brand new gaps emerging.
The force's Power Point presentation to the police services board suggested that the use of tasers would reduce public complaints.
This may indicate a genuine belief in the innocuous nature of the device - or it may indicate an understanding that there will be less evidence of injury.
Many humans rights advocates have raised this concern about pepper spray: it leaves no physical marks, only the memory of unbearable pain.
Courtrooms and internal investigations deal in blood and bone, not emotions. Police, however, are increasingly using weaponry to control emotions. As the Amnesty report points out, many citizens are shocked for "failure to obey commands," presumably because a rolled-up newspaper to the nose was found to be insufficient. Particularly unsettling is the case of a man who refused to stop shouting at the sky.
Over the objection of Councillor Case Ootes, who accused fellow members of favouring bullets, the board moved that all available data on the devices be referred to the medical officer of health for review.
Following this report, the board asked the chief to draft a pilot program in one division, pending a board taser protocol. The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs has commissioned its own study in the wake of two fatal shootings using stun guns.
In a phone conversation, Councillor John Filion assessed the current state of the police proposal as "in limbo," noting that the earliest it will come up again is the 2006 budget, and even then only as a pilot project.
However, since board members Ootes and Hugh Locke support the weapon and the force gives a lukewarm reception to most board edicts (Reesor stated at November's meeting that "it was our understanding that once this presentation was made, the item would be back in the budget"), the police plan is not dead yet.