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Less Lethal is Still Lethal: Tasers and Canadian Police Killings

by Jeff Shantz

RCMP Taser
RCMP Taser

Conducted energy weapons, colloquially known as tasers, are often promoted as a less-lethal force option for police. Yet the history of tasers shows that less lethal is still lethal. Numerous people have been killed by police using a taser on them, including several by Canadian police.

The police use of tasers has received renewed attention following the police killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, by officer Kim Potter, a field training officer and head of the local police association. Potter later claimed that she mistook her gun for a taser, a claim that has been widely ridiculed and condemned. In a rare turn for killer cops, Potter has since been arrested and charged with manslaughter.

Despite the claims of police and police reformists, there is a lethal history of police taser use, and deployment of a conducted energy weapon is by no means a guarantee that the victim will survive.

The most prominent taser killing in Canada was the infamous RCMP assault on 40-year-old Robert Dziekanski in the Vancouver International Airport. The Polish traveller, who spoke no English, had been left without support for almost 10 hours in the arrivals terminal. RCMP almost immediately upon encountering Dziekanski used a taser on him multiple times before pinning him to the ground causing his death on the scene. RCMP public spokespeople initially said Dziekanski had been irate and aggressive during the encounter and suggested he was drunk. The phony “excited delirium” claim was even aired. Until civilian video surfaced showing that in fact Dziekanski was compliant with officers, did not threaten them, and was in fact moving in the direction they suggested.

Police have tried to deny the reality of conducted energy weapons. A 2017 Toronto police report on taser use in 2016 claimed that no one died from tasers that year, despite the fact that the Special Investigations Unit, the agency that examines police harm to civilians in Ontario, was still investigating the death of 31-year-old Rui Nabico. On November 4, 2016, Nabico went into medical distress after Toronto police fired a stun gun at him. He was taken to hospital where he was pronounced dead. The young man only went into medical distress after being tasered, so the Toronto police report was clearly false -- a piece of copaganda -- and they knew it.

Josh Paterson of the BC Civil Liberties Association noted the concerns around fatalities associated with the use of tasers by police. In his words:

“In general we’ve had lots of concerns about the use of conducted energy weapons, the reliability of conductive energy weapons, the safety of them. We understand that it’s a good thing for police to be turning to less lethal force options … but we’ve seen numerous incidents around North America that Tasers don’t end up always being non-lethal force.”

These are not “non-lethal” weapons, as has been shown in numerous cases. In the following, I chronicle some of the police killings of civilians over just the last few years in which conducted energy weapons were the primary form of police force deployed. These are by no means the only such instances of police killing with tasers. And we must stress that the real lethal force in all of them is not the taser, it is the lethal social power of policing.

 

Recent Canadian Police Taser Killings

Already this year, at least one person has been killed by police using a taser. A 30-year-old man died after being tased by a Sault Ste. Marie Police Service officer on the evening of January 23, 2021. The Special Investigations Unit reports that officers were deployed to an apartment building located at 725 Albert Street East at around 7:30 PM for an “unwanted person.” Upon arrival, officers located the man, who allegedly held a knife. Officers discharged a taser on the man. He was transported to hospital where he was pronounced dead at 8:41 PM.

 

In 2020, at least two people died when police deployed a taser. A man died after being pepper sprayed, beaten with batons, and tased by RCMP in the resort town of Whistler, British Columbia. According to the Independent Investigations Office of BC (IIO), the agency that examines cases of police harm to civilians in the province, RCMP claim they were called to Whistler Village around 11:00 AM in response to a call about an “intoxicated man.” Police deployed both pepper spray and a “conducted energy weapon” against the man, as well as beating him with batons. The victim then went into medical distress and later died. BC Emergency Health Services have reported that they responded to a call in Whistler around 11:20 AM, dispatching two ambulance crews and transporting one patient to hospital. In a press release, BCRCMP state that “the male suddenly became still” after officers deployed pepper spray and the taser. No other details have yet been released publicly. Police claims have not been independently confirmed publicly.

 

A 28-year-old man experiencing distress died after he was tased by police on March 30, 2020 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. According to the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT), the agency that examines cases of police harm in the province, Halifax Regional Police responded to a call regarding a man harming himself early in the morning of March 30. Police entered a home and an officer tased the man. According to SIRT, this was an attempt “to prevent the man from further harm”—an odd statement given that a taser represents the inflicting of harm. The man was taken to hospital where he died. As has been shown again and again, police should not be deployed to confront people who are experiencing mental distress or health care crises.

 

Clive Mensah, a 30-year-old Black man, was killed by Peel Regional Police in Mississauga, Ontario, on November 20, 2019. Mr. Mensah’s family came forward publicly on July 21, 2020, partly inspired by the growing attention to police killings of Black and Indigenous people in Canada and the Black Lives Matter movement. Those mobilizations have brought a focus on police killings of people experiencing mental health crises or as part of police “wellness checks” (which are not about wellness at all).

They report that since their loved one’s killing in 2019, they have heard almost nothing from investigators with the Special Investigations Unit (SIU). They are desperate for answers about why police killed their family member, who was unarmed and known to struggle with mental health issues.

Hospital records from the killing show that Mensah was “tased approximately six times.” He was found lying on the ground and handcuffed by paramedics. The hospital report also records that paramedics faced a delay in reaching the victim because “police cruisers blocked roadway to scene.” Paramedics reportedly had to park between 15 to 18 meters away from where Mr. Mensah lay.

 

The family of 43-year-old Gordon Couvrette, who was tased and killed by North Bay police, disputed the police account of their deadly actions activities and reported that they warned police that Couvrette had a heart condition and that tasing him could be fatal. This according to a report by the Special Investigations Unit which found that Couvrette died of a heart attack. Police claim they were called to the scene of a domestic incident early on the morning of February 22, 2018. A friend close to the Couvrette family, Emma Higgins, disputes that account of the situation. In her words, as reported by the SIU:

“He [Couvrette] woke up from sleep delirious from his bipolar medication and thought someone broke in so he started yelling trying to scare the ‘intruder’ protecting his girlfriend. She and her son told the cops that they can’t taze him he’s bipolar and on medication for it and his heart can’t take it and that he was doing no harm.”

Despite the words of those who knew and lived with, Couvrette police moved to arrest the man. In the course of the arrest they used a taser. What Higgins reports is additionally disturbing. She adds that not only did police tase him, but police “held him down and tazed him in the heart.” Gordon Couvrette was taken to the North Bay Regional Health Centre where he was pronounced dead.

 

A man in Chilliwack died after he was shot by a taser by RCMP on the afternoon of Saturday, February 24, 2018. According to the IIO, the RCMP were responding to reports of a parental abduction and a stun gun was deployed during an “interaction” with the man who then went into “medical distress.” The IIO says emergency medical services were called to the scene, but the man did not survive. No further details have been provided and there has been no independent confirmation publicly of RCMP claims.

 

For a small town detachment, the Terrace, BC, RCMP have gained some infamy for violence against civilians, including civilian deaths. On August 21, 2016 Nicolas Allan Jeppesen (29) died after being tased by officers of the Terrace RCMP outside the town’s Mills Memorial Hospital. What has been reported is that in the early afternoon of August 21, RCMP officers were called to the hospital following a report of a man carrying an axe and a possibility that he might do harm to himself. There has been no report that he posed a threat to anyone else. The man was reportedly seen near the area of the hospital’s mental health ward. Upon encountering Jeppesen, RCMP used a taser to subdue the man. During the intervention by police, the victim received undisclosed injuries, through undisclosed means, from which he died after being taken inside the hospital.

 

Conclusion: Disarm and Abolish

This should stand as a caution to any who want to suggest this sort of equipment as some kind of police reform effort. The reality is that any piece of equipment can be lethal in the hands of police who are given full reign to kill however and whenever they see fit (or “feel threatened”). We must never lose sight of the need to abolish police, the force that wields a monopoly on violence and which is tasked with killing in the service of state power and capital. A step on the way to this might well include disarming police. It does not include giving them alterative weapons that, under the guise of being less lethal, are still being used to kill us.


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JShantz (Jeff Shantz)
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