Tased and Confused

May 2, 2008

The room is nearly deserted. Ten or so officers from the drug squad were scheduled to be here at the RCMP Richmond detachment this morning to attend an eight-hour Taser-use recertification course that’s mandatory every three years. (Prior to 2004 policy changes, this was done annually.) But last night, Mounties took part in an international crime bust that led to the arrest over 100 and the seizure of kilos of drugs and an arsenal of weapons. Only two officers show, bleary-eyed and chugging coffee.

While their colleagues finish paperwork or head home to sleep, Sergeant Mike and Sergeant Gene (no last names, since they work undercover) are pushing through with their Taser recertification. Their initial two-day training included “exposure” to the Taser’s zap. That used to be required, but because some officers have experienced adverse reactions, it’s now only strongly recommended.

My big shock is that Corporal Gregg Gillis, the RCMP’s use-of-force expert, has allowed me to attend at all. In October, Polish tourist Robert Dziekanski died at YVR after being Tasered twice. Since 2003, 17 deaths in Canada—six in B.C.—have been linked to Tasers, though they’ve never been singled out as the cause of death. With a coroner’s inquest into Dziekanski’s death set to begin sometime this spring (meant to start in May, it’s been delayed by the police investigation), and a provincial probe also in the works, a December 2007 interim report from the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP cites usage creep and recommends stricter regulations and Taser-use protocols, including a re­design of training programs.

Adrian Tarasoff, our trainer, begins the Power­Point presentation by discussing stun and probe modes. “Stun mode is used for pain compliance,” he says. “Goal-oriented people, or those under the influence of drugs, can work through that pain.” A Taser in probe mode—used on Dziekanski—is “the only less lethal weapon that works on goal-oriented individuals.”

“It feels like sticking your finger in an electrical socket,” offers Gene, who has fired his Taser only once in seven years with the Mounties. Mike, with 12 years under his 35-pound belt, says he once drew his Taser on a “naked female.”

“It’s not a magic-bullet Star Trek phaser,” Tarasoff reminds us, since Tasers fail 20 percent of the time. Ideally, the subject is between two and five metres away and both darts connect. The zap that arcs between them can jump a half-centimetre between clothing and the body, and penetrate soft body armour.  

The Taser is the most studied weapon in police history. But interestingly, Tarassof doesn’t mention a 2007 study conducted by a group of Chicago-based researchers showed that after two seconds of a Taser X26 zap, the heart rate of pigs jumped from 80 beats per minute to about 300. Tachycardia can occur at 120.

Tarasoff goes off script. “Don’t stand on the trigger for 30 seconds, but if you need to apply multiple applications until you can get cuffs on, by all means do.”

He passes around a plastic bag containing the barbed darts, then displays close-up photos of Taser skin injuries. “You may experience pain, minor skin irritations, burns, scarring, redness, or minor bleeding. It’s like a bee sting. I’ve got two scars here,” he says, pointing to his chest.

It’s time to bring out the X26s for the scenario-based training. Gillis plays the bad guy. He’s been Tasered over 20 times during training and compares the post-stun effects to the muscle burn of a gym workout. But today all darts have been replaced by barbed dummies. Gillis dons a helmet and padded suit, and we head into a narrow dark hall next door.

Mike’s shot misses the mark and grazes Gillis’s hand, drawing blood. Gene misses too and, while attempting to replace the cartridge, yells out, “Ah!

I Tased myself!” (This happens if you touch the butt of the cartridge while the Taser is firing.)

During the debrief,  mem­ories are fuzzy. “Even though it’s a scenario, your adrenaline goes through the roof,” says Gene. “You start having auditory exclusion and tunnel vision. You end up only seeing a piece of the picture and your brain doesn’t remember everything. What you think happened and what happened can be very different. You’ll hear an officer say, ‘I think I fired my gun twice,’ but in reality it was six times.”

“The public want answers fast, and sadly it leads to a belief in misuse and cover-ups,” adds Gillis. “Canadians expect really high police standards—and that’s a good thing.” But the dangers are real. “Officers might not even make it home.”

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.