A national registry of police use-of-force incidents would shed light on the risks associated with tasers – controversial weapons believed to cause death only rarely, but the real-world implications of which remain largely unknown, according to a new study.
The 112-page report on the health effects of stun guns, which was sponsored by a federal agency, says its conclusions about respiratory and cardiac risks are limited due to a lack of high-quality evidence. Still, the study states that "while fatal complications are biologically plausible, they would be extremely rare."
With more than 9,000 stun guns in use in Canada – and at time when tasers are under heightened public scrutiny – the panel suggests creating a national registry to cull standardized taser data from police and medical personnel. The study, released on Tuesday, says at least 33 people have died in Canada after the use of a stun gun since 1998, although tasers were not necessarily the direct cause.
"Whether policy-makers choose to [create a national registry] or not is their business," said Justice Stephen Goudge, an Ontario appeal court judge who chaired the panel struck by the Council of Canadian Academies and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. "But the difficulty now is ... there are different criteria for when use-of-force reports are filed, what they say and what they track."
The suggestion – one of several, including "furthering ethical laboratory-based" animal and human research – comes three years after the death of Aron Firman, a mentally ill man who was tasered. The jury recommended Ontario collect stun-gun statistics from its police forces and suggested a national database for all in-custody deaths.
Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, said he is "all for" robust oversight of police activities, but said forces are resource-strapped and officers are bogged down with administrative work. "Do we want police officers out on the street protecting the public and preventing crime, or do we want them chained to a desk constantly filling out administrative reports?" he said.
Stun guns until recently were restricted in Canada's largest province to tactical teams and supervisors, but Ontario announced in August that all front-line officers could now use them.
The weapons have long been a source of debate, with cases such as the deaths of Robert Dziekanski in Vancouver and Sammy Yatim, who was tasered in July after Toronto police shot him multiple times. Mr. Stamatakis said there is now a "chill" on use of stun guns, which may help explain why the RCMP recently reported an increase in threats of taser use but a decrease in deployment.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said a report on the health effects of stun guns comes three years after an inquest into the death of Aron Firman, a mentally ill man who was tasered. In fact, it comes three years after his death. The inquest was earlier this year.