When will police conclude that Tasers are cruel and useless? This vet wants to know.
The Globe and Mail reports this morning that the Mounties will not be charged in the death of Robert Dziekanski.
Honestly, I’m not sure what to think of that decision by the B.C. criminal justice branch. Even though it’s obvious that Dziekanski was murdered, and his mother should receive acknowledgement of that, and some kind of compensation (though nothing will compensate for the loss of her son); I’m not sure the most appropriate course would be to charge the Mounties who used the Taser on him. I believe that the responsibility for his death lies higher up, with the “deciders” who thought it was a good idea to introduce Tasers in the first place. Cattle prods for humans, eh. If it hadn’t been in the news for the past several years, I wouldn’t believe it – I thought these methods were only worthy of concentration camps.
The guys who introduced Taser-like devices to this poor world supposedly had experience with cattle. Well, I worked for a while as a large animal vet, mainly with beef and dairy cows. Among the many tools I was instructed to purchase when I started out was a cattle prod. It looked like this:
Essentially a low-tech Taser prototype, discharging 60-80 volts of electricity when applied directly to the skin (holy moly, Tasers discharge 50,000 volts!? Hello, human doctors? could we have a word with you on this?) Even the relatively small voltage of my cattle prod was not something I ever tried on myself, as I’m a bit of a wuss that way – I’ve been inadvertently shocked by touching electric fences, and other cow-control accoutrements in barns and trust me, it’s an unpleasant experience.
The principal use of the prod, I observed during my rotations, was to get cows to stand up when they were too “stubborn” and didn’t respond to shouts, kicks pushes or slaps on the rump. I observed that the older vets tended to use the prod more frequently than the younger ones, and that women vets almost never used them. When I entered practice, I kept the prod in my tool chest with 2 double-D Energizer batteries, but never used it, though I did once or twice as a student, under instructions, and yes, it felt wrong. At some point, I removed the batteries to use in a much more useful tool (a flashlight) and never replaced them in the prod.
The main problem with the use of the cattle prod was that, in addition to being a cruel and painful method, it didn’t address the underlying problem. If the cow did not rise upon gentle prodding or encouragement, it was because she couldn’t – due to pain, weakness, metabolic disease, a fracture or sprain, a slippery floor, or not enough headspace because the chain around her neck prevented her from moving forward. A “downer” cow cannot be ignored – if she stays down too long, then she will never get up again due to muscle damage – but the prod was never a solution to that problem, not even “for her own good”.
Another use of the cattle prod is to goad cattle to go where you want them to go, when they are balking. I don’t remember ever seeing it used that way, likely because Temple Grandin’s work on cattle had already come into vogue, and we were more interested in using gentler, more effective methods of solving problems. The cattle prod makes the animals more skittish, nervous, and prone to accidents and injury. Not in the best interest of vets or farmers.
So imagine my surprise when a “method of control” that was on the point of passing into the annals of veterinary history in the early 2000s was introduced as a method of controlling humans. Le monde à l’envers.
I don’t know how I can state it more plainly. Cattle prods, like Tasers, do not achieve the desired ends, and all too often cause “adverse events”. Once veterinarians started to realise that cows had very good medical reasons for not rising on command, the use of the prod was seen as retrograde; a tool that at best is useless, and at worst is cruel and harmful. Essentially, if you use it, it’s because you are too lazy or incompetent to figure out what the real problem is.
Yes, sometimes humans freak out and act stubbornly, violently, aggressively, and are a danger to themselves and to others. However, until Tasers entered the police arsenal, I had assumed that these professionals, dealing with with fellow humans, could come up with techniques such as, oh I don’t know, verbal communication? Judo? Physical isolation or “time-out”? Removing bystanders from the scene so they are not at risk? Or maybe other creative methods to defuse these situations; hell, it’s not my responsibility to come up with them, but I’m sure they exist.
Tasers will pass into the annals of police history, it is just a question of time. However, how cruel and stupid are these deciders and manufacturers going to look several years from now? How many humans with diabetes, mental illness, with other medical problems or under extreme duress will have to die in the meantime?