March 08, 2005

How much force is enough? Is a Taser too much?

(This is a cross-post of my first article on

The issue in my mind currently is the use of Tasers by law enforcement in the US and Canada. My opinion (both as a gut feeling and after a little bit of reading and research) is that Tasers are an overkill measure - pun unintentional. Their use seems rarely justifiable to me, and they are probably in danger of becoming law enforcement's societal and public relations equivalent to a certain controversial missile defence technology. (Yes, my name is John, and I am Canadian.)

So, now that I've pissed off the cops and soldiers out there (not to mention anyone right-of-centre), allow me to back-peddle a little. My grandfather was a Mountie (Corporal Clarke of the RCMP) from 1918 to 1948. My Dad was a Military Policeman in the Canadian Armed Forces during WWII, as well as an Air Force officer in later years. Me, I may be a peace-lovin' left-wing techie-artist kind of person and generally useless where defending the security of my neighbourhood or country are concerned, but I do have a lot of respect for the difficult jobs expected of professional peacekeepers at the municipal, federal and international levels, and how hard it is (at least in Canada) to keep them adequately funded and supplied so that they can do their job effectively. In a nutshell, I like cops, and I try to respect soldiers to the extent that I believe in their causes and agree with their tactics.

Okay, so we're back full circle... Let's think about tactics...

The other day, I found this article describing 90 cases of deaths related to the use of Tasers in the US and Canada:

90 cases is in itself amazing, but I also knew the man listed at Number 54:

"54. Robert Bagnell, 44, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
June 23, 2004
Police responding to a disturbance at a rooming house found Bagnell frenzied and destroying a washroom. Police shot him with a Taser and he stopped breathing and died at the scene. Police did not disclose the details surrounding Bagnell's death for more than a month while waiting for toxicology reports. A preliminary autopsy could not determine the cause of death. A coroner said Bagnell might have had a lethal level of cocaine in his system."

Bob Bagnell was a long-time drug user and used to do a little panhandling and sell his artwork outside my local 7-11 store. We got to talking and trading stories about artists or musicians or where we were born or whatever, just out of friendliness. Over the years, I gradually watched him kick his hardcore vices, get cleaner and in the months before he died, he even attended church and made some new friends.

So, it's hard to describe on a personal level, the realization that someone I'd spoken to and gotten to know over a few years had died in such a violent circumstance. Bob died in a altercation with Police, apparently in a coke fueled rage. This is the gist of the official police reports about it. There will undoubtedly be people who will say that it was more likely to happen due to Mr. Bagnell's long history of drug abuse or lifestyle. My issue is not that Bob was going to die - we're all headed that way in our own time - but my gut says that the 22,000 volt Taser shock must have had some effect on Bob's heart failure. Cops and soldiers have been restraining aggressive people hand-to-hand, or with batons or other non-electrical tools. So why now is the human equivalent of an electric cattle prod coming into such vogue for human defense?

I'm not saying that I know anything about Bob Bagnell's actions or state of mind during his fatal altercation with the Vancouver Police. That will be for the official coroner's inquest to determine.

My point is just this: I want to find out if Bob Bagnell might not have died that particular day if a Taser had not been used by the officers in trying to restrain him. It makes me feel cynical that the preliminary coroner's results took 30 days before being made public, toxicology reports notwithstanding, and it makes me feel cynical when I read of numerous other Taser-related deaths, and really suspicious of the Taser's manufacturer and sales agents. It is not a coincidence that Tasers are being used in so many police forces. There must be a plan for some logistical-financial benefit on the part of under-funded and over-worked police forces to bring this particular tool into the trade; more bang per buck, literally. So, here we are dealing with fallout - an unexpected cost that the bean counters and Taser marketing execs didn't expect. When I say "Taser-related deaths", I can only say that I have read that a Taser was used on the victim in during events directly preceding their death. Like I said, the rest will be up to the coroners to determine.

In the meantime, I'll pay some tribute to the man whom I knew who died, and hope for some clarity and facts to put some of my cynicism and suspicions to rest.

More investigation into Vancouver-area deaths related to Taser use:

And, finally, the beginning's of my little web tribute to Robert Wayne Bagnell:

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