May 30, 2005

Is a Taser enough force? Part 2

This is an update to my previous article "How much force is enough?"

A Taser gun
It has been months and months since the announcement of a full coroner's inquest into events surrounding the death of Robert Wayne Bagnell, which happened almost a year ago. A coroner's inquest had been set to start in May 2005, but I recently learned from Patti Gillman, sister of the deceased, that that date has been postponed.

So, it seems we're in a holding pattern still, waiting for the start of an investigation that could clarify the cause(s) of Bob Bagnell's death during an altercation with police in a downtown Vancouver Hotel in June 2004.

Meanwhile, Bob's sister Patti is following the progress of the Ontario Coroner's inquest into another Taser-related death, that of Peter Lamonday. In May 2004, Lamonday died after being "shocked several times by Police" during their attempts to arrest and restrain him. The inquest into the Lamonday death is the first Taser-related death to be investigated in a Coroner's inquest in the province of Ontario. No doubt the media and law enforcement will pay close attention to those proceedings.

According to what I have read in the media and online, many preliminary police coroner reports have said that Taser use was not to the blame in these deaths. Causes of death in many of the cases were attributed to excessive cocaine use, leading to a "drug induced psychosis" and heart failure.

Some people are more than suspicious of claims by law enforcement and the Taser manufacturer that this particular tool is not in some way contributing to deaths in these cases.

According to an article on the CTV web site:

"Amnesty International has said the weapon should be banned until more tests are done to determine its safety. The human rights group says the guns can be deadly when someone is in a weakened state because of heart problems or drug use."

Read more on this page from Amnesty International:

Below is Patti Gillman's recent letter to the London Free Press, detailing her observations of the Lamonday inquest and in general:

"Letter to the Editor:

I held my breath waiting for the Coroner's Inquest into Peter Lamonday's death. I was naively confident that the first Taser-death related inquest in Ontario would at long last provide an opportunity for a much needed and long overdue dialogue on the perils of continued Taser use in Ontario.

When I learned that no independent expert Taser witness would be called to testify, and that those who would testify were public officials who have been openly supportive of Tasers, it became clear that the results of this travesty were a foregone conclusion.

It is atrocious and a great disservice to Mr. Lamonday and the other 9 Canadians (including my brother) who have died, not to mention those who will surely follow – that the role of the Taser in Mr. Lamonday’s premature and senseless death was not more thoroughly examined but was, instead, hastily dismissed by so-called experts on day one of the inquest. From there, the Taser and its part in Mr. Lamonday’s demise were substantially ignored. It is indefensible that no one saw fit to challenge this colossal omission. It is said that justice must be seen to be done, to be done. Sadly, justice was seen to be absent from this inquest.

The police officers likely did not intend to use deadly force on Mr. Lamonday when they Tasered him. It is reasonable to believe that they did not know they were playing Russian roulette with a potentially lethal weapon, since they had been so artfully sold a "non-lethal" bill of goods. If Taser use is to continue in Ontario and in Canada, then the weapon’s place on the continuum of force must be increased to a level equal to deadly force, so that police officers can better predict a potentially deadly outcome and consider their force options more carefully.

The Taser may not have been the sole cause of Mr. Lamonday’s death. But its supporting role simply cannot be ignored, especially given that the weapon’s own manufacturer, Taser International, recently came closer than ever before to saying that use of Tasers can lead to death. Taser International stated: "Our products are often used in aggressive confrontations that may result in serious, permanent bodily injury or death to those involved. Our products may cause or be associated with these injuries."

The rising number of deaths validates the company’s announcement. What more do Ontario officials need before they suspend their own disbelief?"

As an observer who knew Bob Bagnell in my own small way, my motivation rests in the concern that the dead in these situations do not become dehumanized because of poverty, their lifestyle or because of the violent circumstances of their deaths. I do not claim to know much about the other 90-plus Taser-related deaths documented thus far in the U.S. and Canada - I can only claim some knowledge of one particular victim. His family and others are looking for information and closure. (My personal web tribute to Robert Wayne Bagnell gives a portrait-in-progress:

I'm skeptical of an article on a seemingly police-friendly web site quoting the deputy coroner at the Lamonday inquest. He stated that the Taser was not to blame in Lamonday's death because the man died much later, and not immediately after the shock. This kind of logic is likely the start of some precedent-setting somewhere... we'll see.

Sorry - but my concerns are not yet quieted. I can't help but feel a bit cynical when the ads surrounding this particular article are... Taser ads.

No comments: