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Friday, December 05, 2003

Saskatoon city police add tasers to weapons arsenal

December 5, 2003
Rod Nickel, The StarPhoenix

Saskatoon police officers are preparing to add stun guns to their arsenal, as well as semi-automatic firearms aimed at better equipping them for situations like the Columbine High School shooting.

Both the non-lethal Taser stun guns and single-shot carbines are scheduled to become standard equipment in patrol cars by 2006.

Police will continue to carry Glock .40-calibre pistols in their holsters.

City administration has budgeted $62,000 to buy 34 Tasers for police in 2005 and $92,000 to buy an equal number of single-shot weapons to be mounted in cars in 2006.

"The (Taser) technology that's out there is very effective as long as it's deployed properly," said Saskatoon Police Service spokesperson Insp. Lorne Constantinoff.

City police are currently equipped with a baton, pepper spray and firearm. Spray doesn't work on everyone and requires proximity of no further than two metres.

The Taser has a range of six metres.

An officer aims it like a firearm, firing two hooks with a single shot. The hooks, connected to the Taser by a thin wire, dig into the skin of the human target and discharge a 50,000-volt current, causing the person to lose muscle control.

The shock leaves the person feeling dazed for a few minutes, but police say there are no long-term effects.

The decision of when to use a Taser is a judgment call, Constantinoff said, but generally it's appropriate when lethal force isn't warranted and other measures are ineffective or unsafe.

For example, an officer might fire a Taser at a subject threatening him or her with a knife, he said.

The Taser should not be used on a subject who's armed with a gun, because the shock causes muscles to jerk.

"Any tool when it comes to the use of force, to give the officer another option other than lethal force is a good tool," said city police association vice-president Dave Haye.

The police service already owns two Tasers, stored by emergency response team members, who haven't put them to use other than for training.

Saskatoon police stepped up their study of Tasers at the prompting of a coroner's jury looking into the 2001 death of Keldon McMillan. Police shot McMillan in a field south of Wakaw after a high-speed chase and the man's threats to shoot officers.

City police have since become involved in no shootings.

There has been only one firearm shooting by Saskatchewan RCMP officers in the three years since they began carrying Tasers, but shootings are rare anyway, said RCMP spokesperson Heather Russell.

Almost one-third of Saskatchewan RCMP officers are trained to use Tasers, although there are only 60 in use. The RCMP emergency response team and riot squad use half of them, with the remainder spread around busy detachments like Saskatoon, Regina, Battlefords and Yorkton.

RCMP use Tasers to subdue suspects or prisoners in cell blocks or aircraft, Russell said.

City police are also anticipating new car-mounted firearms. Currently, marked city police cars are equipped with pump-action shotguns that fire a spray of pellets. The guns are 20 years old and not ideal for reacting to situations like the 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado, where two high school students killed 12 classmates and a teacher in a shooting rampage.

In that type of incident, police want to target just the threat, not innocent people nearby who could be hit by the pellet spray.

The new firearm will still look like and function like a rifle, but it will be semi-automatic, eliminating the step of pumping the weapon slide between shots, and fire single shots.

"It would be more surgical," Constantinoff said.