“The taser killed Aron Firman”: More than just another Canadian taser death

The CBC report on 6 December 2010 left no room for doubt: “Taser killed Ontario man: Ontario Special Investigations Unit” (1). The SIU, an independent body, had just issued its report on the death of Aron Firman in Collingwood, Ontario. The autopsy report by Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist (Aron died on June 26 2010, following a single taser discharge) was somewhat less blunt, but the conclusion is clear: Aron Firman died from “cardiac arrhythmia precipitated by electronic control device deployment in an agitated man.”

Just another taser tragedy?

Aron was the 29th tasered-then-died victim in Canada. The first was Terry Hannah who died in April 2003 in Burnaby, BC of “acute cocaine toxicity”–just after he was tasered. Robert Dziekanski was the 18th. The most recent, until Aron’s tragic death, was Grant William Prentice, in Brooks, Alberta (May 2009), again of acute cocaine toxicity just after he was tasered twice. The medical examiner in Mr Williams’ case concluded that the taser did not contribute to his death. He could find no trace at all of the taser’s potential lethality in the post-mortem.

There is a simple reason why the taser does not kill, if you are a pathologist: it leaves no biomarker that shows up in any of the toxicological and anatomical tests that are conducted during an autopsy. It’s invisible, under the radar! Meanwhile cocaine consumption (and of any other street drugs) and prior abnormal heart conditions–the two principal “causes-of-death” following tasering in Canada–are readily detectable. But, better still (particularly if you happen to work for TASER International), there is another fatal disease-syndrome that is often invoked: “excited delirium”. No biotrace needed, although, since its principal symptom is “agitation”, the victim’s body is in fast-forward prior to death, and this does show up in the pathologist’s tests. Also mortal disease (very few survive) totally off the map in the psychiatric and medical professions–has no legal counsel to defend its interests. Yet, despite its pseudoscience status, it has acquired legitimacy in the pathologist/coroner/inquest community.

Aron Firman’s death is, however, more than “just another taser tragedy”. The SIU report and subsequent comments by Aron parents generate three major new developments in the taser controversy.

Firstly, as we saw, the SIU overtly identified the causal relationship between the discharge of the taser and the death of the person tasered. Judge Thomas Braidwood, after hearing from 61 witnesses and summing up hearings that cost over $4-million (that’s including $1-million for the RCMP legal counsel, at Canadian tax-payers’ expense and to the federal police’s shame), was unable to answer the central question:

“ … We will never know, with absolute certainty, what caused Mr. Dziekanski’s death. The best we can do is draw inferences from the known facts, and reach conclusions about the most likely cause of death: I consider it a reasonable inference to be drawn from all the evidence that the multiple deployments of the conducted energy weapon played a more prominent role [than Mr Dziekanski’s pre-existing problems].” (2)

In other words, the taser and its manufacturer were, in the end, absolved. But the SIU puts the blame directly on the taser as the weapon as the direct cause of Aron’s death. A major advance.

Secondly, while Judge Braidwood came down heavily on the four RCMP officers who assaulted Robert Dziezanski as if–in the judge’s words–they were trying to break up a bar-room brawl, the SIU concluded that there were “no reasonable grounds” to charge the officer who used the Taser on Aron Firman. As SIU director Ian Scott said in a press release: “The Taser is characterized as a less lethal or intermediate weapon both in the OPP operator recertification material and the use of force model,” adding, “However, in this incident, the Taser’s deployment in my view caused Mr. Firman’s death.” Ontario Provincial Police Inspector Dave Ross declared the OPP has no plans to stop using tasers and they will stick with the present guidelines until an Inquest is conducted “The guideline [dating from before Aron’s death] remains in effect”.

So who is to blame?

Putting aside the manufacturer and its well-healed legal counsel (“no trace, no proof”), it is clear that frontline police officers in Canada are in many cases unaware of the taser lethality. SIU director Ian Scott said the “officer could have reasonably thought that the Taser deployment would not be lethal based upon his training”. This points to a gross–professional–misconduct on the part of those responsible for taser training and taser use. Police chiefs across Canada have demonstrated a contempt for the public interest by declining to include a strong message: the taser is a very dangerous weapon, causes extreme pain (“torture”, the UN Committee Against Torture’s term, is entirely appropriate) and must not be used to obtain compliance because, as well as being an instrument of abuse (“torture”), it can and does result too often in death. (In the last 10 years, five times more Canadians have died after being tasered than police-officers killed in the line of duty.)

Adding insult to injury, municipal Public Safety Commission have too often given blanket approval to police chiefs’ requests for tasers, unwilling to create a conflict with police unions who are among the stun-gun’s most vocal advocates.

The “saving lives” mantra is a lie: police use the tasers only against people who are not directly threatening the lives of police-officers (guns are for that as the police repeatedly say), and not, certainly, to save the lives of their targets (gallows humour here). Yet this lie is still being disseminated by the upper echelons of Canadian police forces, municipal, provincial and federal.

Thirdly, following the release of the SIU report, Aron’s father told journalists:

“Aron [who has a history of schizophrenic episodes] was obviously going through some sort of crisis, but at the time they entered there he was actually sitting down and they were able to ask him some questions. But they actually escalated it by threatening him with jail–actually telling him he was going to go to jail. He reacted to that … and he was Tasered … which killed him.” (4)

Mr Firman drew a laudable conclusion: Aron would still be alive if the OPP had had a mobile crisis intervention team ready to intervene. Mr Firman said there was nothing radical about his proposition: “It’s baby steps,… It’s better to be proactive than reactive …This is not about guilt, this is about putting something in place to protect the most vulnerable people.”(3)

But such a proposal–whether a crisis intervention team or substantial sensitivity training of police officers that includes the rudimentary principles of Crisis Intervention Training–is not on the agenda: “too expensive” (somehow the security scandal at the G8 was not “too expensive”), and such a modest proposal also runs counter to the evolution of policing in Canada: away from empathy, true communication, patience and reflection to perceiving anyone different as threatening, seeing the taser as a legitimate means of “communication”, sharing a need to resolve conflict situations as expeditively as possible (cynics might say, as a result of the need to get back to the cell-phone and the onboard computer; hyper-cynics might add: to get back to Dunkin’ Donuts) and, perhaps most sadly, the search for a technological solution to every problem. The direction is only too clear: in-group solidarity within an increasingly isolated police community; suspicion and hostility towards “the Other”. (Taser victims are often in psychiatric distress, “out of control”, and the police seriously believe a 50,000-volt taser discharge is a “window of opportunity” for crisis intervention by paramedics! Are they mad?)

But the police as an institution is itself the object of “collateral damage”: the brutal cutbacks in community health-care facilities and social services over the last 15 years have pushed too many Canadians–particularly those in psychiatric crisis–over the edge and onto the street. The police have unwittingly and unwillingly become the front-line of acute-crisis intervention, lacking the training and orientation to deal with all these victims of “balanced budgets”.

What does this tell us?

For me, this tragic tale of taser abuse confirms my own reading of the logic underlying police taser (ab)use: A very smart and manipulative corporation, with the monopoly over a “sexy, new weapon” (its own words) sold Canadian police chiefs a poisoned fruit; frontline officers, backed by their very powerful union, were overjoyed with this new “gun”, which they could actually use (firearms are very rarely used by the police); the taser has not made our streets or homes safer, but it has deepened the gulf between the community and the police. Conclusion: Write tasers off as a bad debt, an unfortunate error that can still be corrected, to “restoring public confidence” (the title of Judge Thmos Braidwood’s first report). Ban the taser, coast-to-coast.

Just say No! The Netherlands police, and their unions, said “No, we don’t want it”; judges banned it in Buenos Aires since it was a torture weapon, too close to the scars of the despised dictatorship; the San Francisco Public Safety Commission said “No”, following systematic abuse by the BART police; Amnesty International has said “No” since 2001; the South African government canceled an order for 4,000 tasers following the publication of the Braidwood Report. … Many European countries have found the taser an offer they could and did refuse.

We do not have to accept the Arizona-ization of our Canadian police!

Patrick Bolland, a longtime member of Socialist Studies (dues currently owing), until recently taught social psychology and research methodology in a Montreal Cegep. He’s now a social-science translator, member of the Montreal coalition to ban the taser and owner of a new website www.GlobalShock.org, which focuses on the global impact of taser stungun technology.

  1. CBC News - Toronto (December 7, 2010) Taser killed Ontario man: SIU
  2. TNT - Truth…Not Tasers
  3. Braidwood Inquiry report. All 900 pages are open-access and downloadable. See GlobalShock.org for the executive summary and recommendations of Part 1 (“Restoring Public Confidence”) and Part 2 (“Why?”)
  4. The Enterprise-Bulletin (January 21, 2011) OPP needs crisis team in Collingwood