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July 31, 2009

Braidwood's recommendations inadequate

The Canadian Charger

Last week, retired judge Thomas Braidwood released his recommendations on police use of electroshock weapons, also called CEWs (Conducted Energy Weapons).

CEWs are manufactured by one company, Taser International, of Scottsdale, Arizona.

Across Canada, more than 70 law enforcement agencies use CEWs, which put out electroshocks of up to 50,000 volts. The use of CEWs has led to at least 25 deaths in Canada and more than 300 in the U.S., according to Braidwood.

Braidwood was appointed to head a B.C. commission of inquiry into the October 2007, CEW-related death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski.

Dziekanski, 40, had been lost and was wandering for hours at Vancouver International Airport, and began throwing furniture. In response to a 911 call, four RCMP officers arrived; and one officer tasered Dziekanski five times, subjecting him to high-voltage electroshock for a total of more than thirty seconds.  He died minutes later.

Braidwood noted in his report, “I am satisfied that conducted energy weapons do have the capacity (even in healthy adult subjects) to cause heart arrhythmia, which can lead to ventricular tachycardia and/or fibrillation which, if not treated immediately, can cause death, and that risk increases in certain circumstances, such as when the subject has certain pre-existing medical conditions or is in a fragile emotional state.”

This sentence manages to be blandly misleading about the medical facts, and consequently about the dangers of CEWs. 

To say that heart arrhythmia is distinct from ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation--which may however in some unexplained manner follow from it--is to block any acknowledgment of a direct causal connection between tasering and death.

But ventricular tachycardia (accelerated heartbeat) and fibrillation (uncoordinated contractions) are in fact forms of cardiac arrhythmia. 

In contrast to arrhythmia originating in the heart's upper chambers which may cause discomfort or tiredness but are not directly dangerous; most forms of arrhythmia originating in the lower chambers, or ventricles, are life-threatening. 

Ventricular tachycardia will often deteriorate into fibrillation--and ventricular fibrillation lasting for more than a few seconds produces a collapse of blood circulation, leading to death within minutes, in the absence of medical professionals equipped with an electric defibrillator.

Braidwood does offer some sensible recommendations:

“I recommend that the Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General encourage the minister’s federal, provincial, and territorial counterparts to develop and fund a national research program for conducted energy weapons that will promote independent, science-based, and peer-reviewed research that attaches priority to:

• quantifying the medical risks associated with conducted energy weapon use;

• identifying the highest-risk subjects;

• identifying the highest-risk external circumstances; and

• developing recommendations for best practices, including but not limited to:

* deployments in probe mode across the subject’s chest;

* multiple deployments; and

* deployments used on emotionally disturbed people.”

But pending the results of this research, Braidwood should have banned the use of all CEWs, as recommended by Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, as he cited in his report:  “Amnesty’s main recommendation continues to be to suspend all transfers and use of TASERS and other similar electroshock weapons pending a rigorous, independent and impartial study into the use and effects….[and] the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said, ‘Given the scientific uncertainty that exists today, and consistent with a cautionary approach, we actually have urged a moratorium on the use of these weapons.’”

In failing to demand a moratorium on the use of CEWs, Judge Braidwood has missed a unique opportunity to prevent the next death at the hands of police armed with tasers.

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