Photo by roland.
On January 17, 2008, Thomas Smith, chairman and co-founder of Taser International, began what amounted to a marketing pitch for his electrifying gadget before an assembly of community activists, journalists, and law enforcement at Toronto Police Services headquarters on College Street. With the previous October’s death-by-Taser tragedy at Vancouver International Airport, you’ve got to commend Smith on the near-tasteless gumption of his feverish whirlwind tour, selling TI’s Conducted Energy Weapon to Canadian police detachments with all the ardour of a bankrupt vacuum salesman. At his Toronto stop, Smith began his spiel with a cute little anecdote about two kids in Scottsdale, Arizona, and a man’s dream of making a real life ray-gun.
The story goes that the Taser’s original inventor, Jack Cover, manifested the idea from his fanboy love of Tom Swift, a ’60s sci-fi take on Doogie Howser, Indiana Jones, and McGyver. Even its name is an homage to Cover’s boyhood geekdom: an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electronic Rifle,” the weapon—like the shark-finned land yachts contemporary to its conception—painted the future with broad, Cold War strokes. The inventor himself, ever ambitious, had big, big plans. With enough R&D, he imagined the technology evolving to ridiculously Flash Gordon-esque ends, like the capacity to fire through walls.
Sadly, Cover died before his wildly unattainable vision was realized. By 1974, the NASA researcher’s design was mostly complete, but logistical issues hampered its further development. Its use of gunpowder, for example, ensured a restricting firearm designation by the ATF; in 1991, a faulty, battery-powered version provided to the LAPD infamously failed to subdue Rodney King. Undeterred, Cover teamed up with Smith and brother Rick at their Scottsdale facilities to develop a “non-firearm” weapon for citizens and law enforcement. While the idea was purported as an alternative to the blunt-force justice of nightsticks and bullets, its execution resembled anything but the swift, surgical precision of a Star Trek phaser. What he and the Brothers Smith managed to cobble together was a weapon that would immobilize its target, seizing muscle and nerve with arcing, paralyzing efficiency. Instead of a beam, it triggered a tethered electrode; instead of fitting neatly in a futuristically tiny holster, it was about the size of a Dustbuster. Nevertheless, a successful template for future designs was achieved, and a humane solution to the classic police beatdown was celebrated—at least temporarily.
Years later, in the wee hours of October 13, 2007, Robert Dziekanski, a 40-year-old would-be immigrant from Poland, packed his bags and prepared for a flight to Vancouver, British Columbia. Eight years earlier, his mother, Zophia, emigrated to Kamloops in the province’s interior, settling into a new life in the Canadian West. Early in 2007, plans began to take shape that would see Robert, an only child, joining his mother. Yet one obstacle impeded his journey: an overwhelming fear of flying.
Photo by Jeremy_Toeman.
According to a statement released by the B.C. Criminal Justice Branch [PDF], Dziekanski was literally sick with terror. “He had not eaten or slept well in the days preceding his flight,” the report reads. “He was described to be in a highly fearful and panicked state.” Later, friends described him “sitting or laying on the floor physically shaking and becoming physically ill.” At one point, Dziekanski clung hysterically to a radiator; after calming down, he carried a small receptacle in the car to the airport, just in case the fear should peristaltically return. Having never set foot aboard an aircraft in his life, the frightening prospect of hurtling through the stratosphere in a pressurized aluminum tube was no doubt exacerbated by the apprehension of leaving his homeland.
At 3:25 p.m., Dziekanski’s flight touched down at Vancouver International Airport. By that time—12:25 a.m. in Poland the day after he left—his journey’s duration was clocked somewhere in the neighbourhood of twenty-one hours. Airport surveillance picked him up at the primary checkpoint around 4:05 and the baggage carousel at 4:10, where his mother had instructed him to await her arrival. Unbeknownst to her, however, the carousel area was not accessible to the general public. Which is where the more familiar details of the story kick in.
Dziekanski’s condition worsened. For over six hours, according to Canadian Border Services Agency officials, Dziekanski—whose lapsed travel time was approaching thirty hours—was either seated or asleep in the luggage carousel area. Three hours later, at 12:45 a.m., customs officers had finally completed processing procedures and escorted him to the public International Arrivals area, where his behaviour suddenly turned. Erratic and delusional, witnesses described his conduct as everything from “aggressive” to “totally enraged” to “a heightened state of pure panic.” He tried to re-enter the secured customs area, wedging both luggage and furniture in the entry to keep it open; later, he used computers and chairs as projectiles, attempting to smash his way through the glass. Throughout the entire ordeal, despite his presence in the international terminal of one of Canada’s busiest airports, no verbal attempt was made to communicate. After thirty minutes, the four uniformed RCMP officers involved tried unsuccessfully to calm the agitated traveller with hand signals. Dziekanski grabbed a stapler; the RCMP reached for their Tasers. Minutes later, Robert Dziekanski was dead.
Bookended by Dziekanski’s death and this month’s dismissal of charges against the four officers, 2007 through 2008 saw Cover’s toy dominate headlines. Outrage erupted over the expeditious use of an evidently dangerous weapon in law enforcement. With its deployment in quieting students at the University of Florida, enforcing library rules at UCLA, or restraining octogenarian cardiac patients in Kelowna, Thomas Smith’s Toronto hard-sell last January basically imploded. That night, Smith asserted that the Taser isn’t really dangerous at all; against the infallible logic of Daddy Stun Gun, public health and human rights concerns are a little, you know, quaint. Fifty thousand volts aren’t as dangerous as they sound, he maintained, and neither will non-penetrative injuries necessarily kill you. It’s not the Taser with its pulsing, excruciating current that fatally shreds the heart and nervous system, it’s you. Just relax a little and you won’t die.
Like Dziekanski’s belatedly understandable stress level, compounding states of anxiety and unease—they call it “excited delirium,” blamed on everything from cocaine to resisting arrest—have been the explanation of every pro-Taser apologist in confronting an alarming death rate. Yet according to a CBC investigative report published earlier this month, some Tasers, namely the X26 model produced before 2005, deliver current exceeding official specifications by as much as fifty percent. Designed to zap you with an immobilizing fifty thousand volts (not amps, as Smith assiduously repeated), the math is horrifying. Meanwhile, Taser International maintains that its product is safer than Tylenol.
Art in Vancouver, B.C. reacts to the Tasering of a “fare-jumper” by transit police. Photo by sillygwailo.
But while the Taser’s public health risks have raced to the forefront, the elephant in this particular room gets little attention: the police themselves. The Taser’s use is supposedly limited to situations in which public safety is seriously breached, but the weapon has defaulted as a first resort a staggering number of times. On April 15, it was reported that transit cops on Vancouver’s SkyTrain routes had used their weapons against fare-jumpers, a glaring violation of that city’s policy to deploy Tasers only when “the situation demands control over a non-compliant, suicidal, potentially violent, or violent individual,” and only then after “lower force” methods were demonstrated as ineffective. In the SkyTrain case, the target had fled during a routine rider check, a common occurrence aboard Vancouver’s monorail which does not require fare screening before boarding. As the suspect fled, the weapon was fired. While police intervention is certainly warranted under such circumstances, the rationale in using the Taser against unarmed, non-violent offenders—especially post-Dziekanski—is absurd, even inhumane.
Such concerns haunted the TTC’s announcement that it was considering arming Special Constables, after Police Chief Blair proposed that 3,000 of Toronto’s 5,510 police officers be Taser-equipped. A testament to the pervasive alarm over the weapon, Brad Ross, Director of Corporate Communications with the TTC, told Torontoist that “there are no plans to arm Special Constables with anything beyond what they already have—batons, pepper foam, handcuffs.” While a risk assessment is currently underway, Tasers will “not be considered” for TTC employees.
Still, the Taser, provided to officers trained in its use as a “less-than-lethal” option—ostensibly in the same boat as teargas—is being used altogether too often. For offences that scarcely flirt with the definition of crime, the Taser, with all its tortuous, electrifying efficiency, is becoming the standard: last year, the British Columbia RCMP used it 496 times. And while the public outcry and its resulting inquiries are indeed encouraging forward trends, Taser International, like any company, isn’t about to limit its portfolio to one widely distributed, deeply reviled product.
Last January, Torontoist pressed Smith on two of Taser’s forthcoming innovations. An eerie evolution of the Taser’s harrowing technology, TI announced the XREP, or Extended-Range Electronic Projectile. A shotgun-fired wireless Taser capable of blasting its target from thirty metres away, the XREP “improves” on the X26′s design limitations, namely the duration of its punishment: while the current model can sustain a single discharge for five seconds, the XREP, without the encumbrance of a tether, can do so for twenty. Ignorant of its implications—even giddy, it seemed—Smith responded to Torontoist’s questions by saying that it addresses a need for crowd control, using “electronic force” as a superior alternative to “brute force.” Another device, the “Shockwave,” goes a step further. Capable of disabling an entire group of people at the push of a button, Smith suggested its use at police or military checkpoints, or to prevent crowds from “marching down a particular street.” He smiled, unaffected, as an uneasy murmur passed over the assembled.
There’s no cause for alarm, he insisted. After all, the Taser is safe, your best friend, and the best thing to happen to law enforcement since the phrase “To Serve and Protect.”