VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Canada’s two largest police associations defended the use of Taser stun guns on Tuesday, saying there is no direct evidence the weapons can be lethal.
The public support for the weapons follows a decision by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to warn its officers that electronic stun guns can kill and should be fired only when there is a real threat to themselves or the public.
It also comes amid a public inquiry that has raised questions about police use of the weapons during a incident at the Vancouver International Airport in 2007 that left a Polish immigrant dead.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Police Association said police should be equipped with the weapons, which incapacitate people through a 50,000-volt electrical jolt, because they are a safe alternative to regular firearms.
The groups dismissed complaints that not enough independent research had been done into the possible dangers of so-called conducted energy weapons, and said there was no evidence Tasers had contributed directly to any deaths.
“So much of the misinformation, the miscommunication, is driven by people who have never walked in our shoes ... and could never pass recruit training,” Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantino told an Ottawa news conference.
Critics of the weapons, made by U.S.-based Taser International Inc, say that in addition to a lack of data on their dangers, police are now using them too frequently to zap people who pose no real threat.
The controversy has been heightened in Canada since the Vancouver Airport incident, in which immigrant Robert Dziekanski died after he was jolted several times by RCMP officers and then physically restrained.
A video of Dziekanski’s brief confrontation with the police and his screams as he died on the airport floor received wide international publicity, although the exact cause of his death has not been determined.
One of the RCMP officers who confronted Dziekanski defended police actions at a hearing on Tuesday, saying they thought he posed a threat and there was not enough time to talk with him before using the Taser.
However, Constable Gerry Rundel said that, in retrospect, it was possible that Dziekanski’s actions reflected his frustration at not being able to communicate with anyone in his native Polish.
Rundel said police had very little information on Dziekanski when they arrived at the airport on a disturbance call, and he did not interpret the man’s raised arms as a sign of surrender.
Later in the hearing, Dziekanski’s mother could be seen shaking her head as Rundel said that even now he is not sure what the officers could have done differently based on what they knew at the time.
Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson