TASERs Will Save Lives, Deputy Coroner Says

Police board urged to buy more stun guns, told medical safety review not needed

By Jeff Gray, The Globe And Mail

Ontario''s deputy chief coroner, James Cairns, urged the Toronto Police Services Board to expand the use of tasers yesterday, saying they had not caused a single death but instead had saved countless lives in police standoffs.

"I am absolutely convinced tasers will save lives instead of taking lives. And I hope some day, if I am in the position, please taser me before you shoot me," Dr. Cairns told the board at its meeting yesterday.

Dr. Cairns, who has closely studied data on at least 50 deaths that have occurred after a taser was used by various police forces, also slammed the board''s recent decision to get the city''s medical officer of health, who specializes in communicable diseases, to rule on the safety of the controversial stun guns.

"If I had SARS, I''d certainly want to see the medical officer of health. I consider this a matter of forensic medicine...We''re the ones that investigate these deaths, " Dr. Cairns said.

Dr. Cairns''s surprise appearance at the board, at the invitation of Police Chief Julian Fantino, who has been pushing or the purchase of more tasers, appeared to catch board chairwoman Pam McConnell off guard.

"I am raising this issue again because I do not want to have the unnecessary death of a mentally ill or emotionally disturbed person on my conscience," Chief Fantino told the board yesterday. "Nor do I want one of our police officers to have to live with the knowledge that he or she had killed someone whose life could have been saved."

Dr. Cairns said his office had amassed mountains of independent data on tasers in the course of investigating three cases in Ontario this year in which people died after being stunned by the devices.

In all of those cases, and in another six across the country, tasers were cleared of causing the deaths, he said. The people who end up on the wrong end of these stun guns, which shoot a barb at the suspect and deliver an electrical jolt through a wire, are often in a state of "excited delirium," Dr. Cairn said.

In this state, caused by psychiatric illness, overdoses of cocaine or other drugs, or alcohol withdrawal, people are "impervious to pain" and immune to other police restraint methods such as pepper spray, he said. They have "unbelievable physical strength" and tend to be paranoid and violent.

If people in this state do not receive immediate medical treatment, they will likely die of a heart attack on their own, Dr. Cairns said. And if the person is armed or is considered a threat, police officers often have little choice but to use bullets. If a taser is on hand, they can be subdued and taken to hospital, he said.

Dr. Cairns dismissed concern expressed in articles in The New York Times and in a report from the human-rights group Amnesty International on tasers, saying the overwhelming evidence, from independent studies in British Columbia, Australia and Britain, is that the risk of death from a taser was extremely low.

Currently, only members of Toronto''s tactical squad are equipped with tasers. Chief Fantino has asked that frontline sergeants be equipped with them, something that is allowed under provincial rules. But the board deferred the decision until April at its last meeting. Dr. Cairns said yesterday that all officers should eventually be given tasers.

After hearing from the deputy chief coroner yesterday, the police board agreed to try to deal with the taser issue next month if possible.

Chief Fantino also presented the board yesterday with a report on a pilot project conducted by his force on a new model of taser, the X-26, which is more effective but uses a lower dose of electricity than the M-26, currently approved for use. The newer stun gun also keeps track each time it is fired, to guard against possible police abuse.

Yesterday, the board unanimously passed a policy forbidding leaders of the police union to endorse political candidates in election campaigns, threatening them with police discipline charges if they do.

Toronto Police Association President Dave Wilson repeated a vow to defy the ban, saying it was meant to "muzzle" his union. "You can charge me when the time comes, and I will fight this policy in the courts," he told the board.

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