Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New Brunswick Public Safety Minister John Foran Decrees Taser Use To Continue

I was disappointed to see the comments from Public Safety Minister John Foran as reported on the CBC New Brunswick web site article N.B. won't ban Tasers, but considers new guidelines. In that interview Minister Foran was reported as indicating, without any explanation, that "New Brunswick Public Safety Minister John Foran says he is not prepared to ban the use of Tasers by the province's police. Foran said his department is looking at developing new guidelines for Taser use, but he sees no need for an immediate ban."

On December 24 2006 I sent an email request to Minister Foran, Premier Graham, Health Minister Murphy and Justice Minister and Solicitor General TJ Burke requesting that the New Brunswick government "prohibit the police use of TASERS or at least suspend such use until your government has studied their safety and you personally feel comfortable with their use on New Brunswickers." My concern, beyond that of any citizen's concern, arises from the fact that I am the father of a profoundly autistic boy with limited communication ability and autistic persons and persons with developmental disabilities have been Tasered on occasion in North America because they lack communication skills and police will often use Tasers in situations where the person with whom they are speaking "fail to comply" with their communications, that is with police orders or directions. In the recent Vancouver tragedy the gentleman was unable to communicate because he did not understand English.

My letter from last Christmas Eve stated:

December 24, 2006

Hon. Shawn Graham, Premier
Hon. TJ Burke, Minister of Justice and Attorney General
Hon. John Foran, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General
Hon. Michael Murhphy, Minister of Health

Dear Honourable Premier and Honourable Ministers:

As the father of a 10 year old autistic boy with severe communication challenges I have long been aware that persons with autism and other disorders which impair communication skills have on occasion been TASERED by police forces in North America; in some part because police will use TASERS when dealing with "unruly" persons who do not respond to commands just as they sometimes use forceful takedowns in effecting arrests of such persons. I am concerned about the use of such dangerous weapons on New Brunswick citizens by our police forces.

The announcement by New Brunswick's Chief Coroner Dianne Kelly that she has set a date for an inquest into the death of Kevin Geldart, 34, who had been reported missing from a Moncton hospital ward on May 5, 2005 and who died after Moncton police used a Taser gun on him later that day, increases my concern as does news that the Fredericton City Council has voted to authorize the purchase of TASERS for use by Fredericton City police officers.

TASER use has raised concerns around the world and its use has preceded the deaths of approximately 50 people in North America since 2001. A TASER is a weapon which discharges a high voltage shock sometimes causing cardiac arrest, sometimes immediate and total loss of muscle control resulting in serious head injuries from unprotected collapse of the victim.

Amnesty International has called for cessation of TASER use by police forces pending further study of their safety and has stated that the use by police forces of TASER weapons as contraventions of international standards prohibiting torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as well as standards set out under the United Nations (UN) Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by law Enforcement Officials.

Please be safe not sorry. You have great and necessary responsibilities to weigh on your consciences. The unnecessary death of New Brunswick citizens should not be among them. I ask that your government prohibit the police use of TASERS or at least suspend such use until your government has studied their safety and you personally feel comfortable with their use on New Brunswickers.


Harold Doherty

63 Alder Avenue
Fredericton NB

I don't know if the New Brunswick government gave my expression of concern any real consideration. I do not enjoy any particular weight or influence with the government. And the police forces in New Brunswick perform a vitally important service to our society. Their officers deserve everyone's respect and appreciation. When their representatives urge our Public Safety Minister to permit the continued use of Tasers in apprehending citizens it is understandable that their wishes would be given great weight.

Still, given the numbers of deaths arising when individuals have been Tasered it is long past time that governments, including the New Brunswick government, stopped accepting without real, independent study, assertions about the safety of Taser use. A single Taser shot to a healthy police officer who knows the shot is coming is obviously not the same as the often multiple shots, true shocks, which hit people of unknown health in heightened emotional states.

Since last December there have been more Taser induced deaths in Canada and the US. The world has seen that Robert Dziekanski was Tasered, and subdued with rough physical force, when the arresting officers were not in any visible danger, and without any obvious attempt by those officers to communicate. The officers probably did not understand the Polish language being used by Mr. Dziekanski but they could have tried other means to communicate including facial expressions and hand gestures. As the father of an 11 1/2 year old boy with very limited oral communication abilities I have had to learn to communicate in every manner possible.

It is time police officers focussed more on communication, more on defusing situations, and less on firing their Tasers on people. Tasers are not safe when used on persons of unknown health in difficult circumstances. The evidence can be found in the deaths that have ensued. The false belief that Tasers are harmless have probably contributed to their occasionally unnecessary use on persons like Robert Dziekanski.

Hopefully too our political leadership will do more than simply tell us that regardless of the deaths that ensue New Brunswick citizens who lack the ability to communicate will be subject to Taser shots and possible death. Hopefully when Minister Foran says that the government is developing new guidelines for Taser use he actually means it. Hopefully those guidelines will encourage officers to use Tasers only when necessary and only when they, or other citizens are being threatened, and not simply for "non-compliance" with a verbal command. A command which may not be understood by many.

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