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?

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13 Comments on “When will police conclude that Tasers are cruel and useless? This vet wants to know.”

  1. skdadl Says:

    Great post, brebis noire.

    One answer to your title question is that we should have civilian authorities who are responsible enough to do the research on such methods themselves and then wise enough to lay down the law — literally — to the police. That is the job of people like mayors and police commissioners and so on.

    We seem not to have such people, though. Wonder why …

    Another answer, as always, is an aroused citizenry who finally force the hand of the civilian authorities, who then force the hand of the police, but man, that is one slow process, and we have just barely begun.

  2. Beijing York Says:

    I think there should be an inquest in the role played by different government agencies/bodies in this tragic attack on an innocent man. The RCMP officers were responsible for using excessive violence and pulling the triggers on those guns but there were other failures leading up to calling in the RCMP. Creative methods to diffuse a situation do exist. Health care professionals and many front line social workers have to be trained in these methods because they often deal with many agitated clients.

    On a related note, latest propaganda from Taser Inc. is that the expert commissioned by CBC/Radio Canada used flawed data in his report.

    http://www.canada.com/topics/news/national/story.html?id=1063542

  3. brebisnoire Says:

    I tend to think that it’s the senior law enforcers’ “professional” responsibility to get rid of Tasers. “Evidence-based” practice, maybe? Of course, they are in a world of escalated weaponry, which is a problem in itself. The problem with Tasers is that they are supposed to be “non-lethal” weapons, too often used just because they can. And it’s just plain wrong, any way one looks at it.
    But as you note, it’s the public who often has to get enraged and agitate – but they don’t have the power or the authority to change things, not quickly enough anyways.
    I’m sure there are still vets, ranchers and farmers out there using cattle prods – but not as many as before.

  4. brebisnoire Says:

    Thanks for that Beijing. But even at the “expected level”, it’s discharging a humungous amount of voltage! I was stunned (no pun intended) to find out how much, I really wasn’t expecting that. My little cattle prod absolutely pales in comparison.

  5. lagatta Says:

    Cattle prods were among the most popular means of torture in the so-called Southern Cone countries (Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay) during the totalitarian dictatorships of Operation Condor, since these countries are famous for their huge productions of beef, sheep and other meats. The torturers devised all kinds of means of increasing their power and the pain inflicted.

    I won’t go more into the horrors of the concentration camps in those regimes; there are many publications availible in print and online. Many of the other means of torture and mass death in those countries also “creatively” used the technologies of the livestock industry.

    We have seen too many cases where there was either a lack of communication (as in the horrible Robert Dziekanski case) or physical incapacity to respond, as in the recent case in which a man suffering from acute diabetic shock was tasered instead of receiving the first-responder medical help he should have been able to count on from law enforcement professionals.

  6. Blind Man Says:

    That’s wonderful stuff, brebis noire. A great and needful perspective.

  7. deBeauxOs Says:

    brebis noire, I am enjoying the depth and breadth of your blogposts, and I am looking forward to reading your perspectives on other political issues.

  8. mouthyorange Says:

    brebis noire — I am thrilled to see what you are doing with your blog. I believe my dog and cats would second that! I love the essay style of your writing, and what you are bringing together — the bases from which your point of view emerges and synthesizes. Very refreshing; very valuable.

    It’s already one of my favourites.

    I’ll be back!

  9. Holly Stick Says:

    I went over to Deltoid a little while ago and noted that excessive sweating is one of the supposed symptoms of supposed “excited delirium”; and I asked if the shock might be intensified if used on someone who is sweating. A few people discussed it, but the response was inconclusive.

    I first had the idea from instructions on using a cattle prod which said don’t use it on wet cattle.

    My question was at #50, the responses between #66 & #82 (It was an open thread, so several topics were being discussed there.)

    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2008/11/open_thread_15.php#comment-1218310

  10. brebisnoire Says:

    Thanks everyone. There were a lot of painful moments as a large animal vet; in spite of a lot of Herriot-like stories, it was generally rather depressing work if one thought about it too much.

    Holly, I checked out that discussion, and even though I’m not much use at discussing electrical conductivity, I can’t help thinking that sweat would have an effect on the penetration or effect of the current. Some people can sweat very profusely, and of course we are always warned about being careful with electrical current when our feet are damp. I suppose you’d need a cardiologist to explain that, or even better, someone who specialises in the pathology of electrocution. I am still waiting for that person to step out into the media and make the statement against Tasers.

    I found myself to be extremely sensitive to even small shocks – I was once knocked onto my back just from inadvertently touching the underside of my arm to an electric fence. I’m sure I lost consciousness for a fraction of a second, because I don’t remember falling. Other people touched the same fence and didn’t feel nearly as much of a shock – though the current was set higher than usual. (Also – I just remembered that I once made an insurance declaration on behalf of another farm where a cow had tried to shimmy underneath the fence, and was found dead; the other vet and I could only conclude that she had been electrocuted by the current, from being stuck under the wire – and we considered the moisture on the ground to be a factor.)

  11. Toe Says:

    Australia and Britain’s bobby’s to be armed with stun guns.
    http://article.wn.com/view/2008/11/24/Minister_unveils_new_stun_gun_plans_9/

    Call me cynical but one thing I never see when reading the ‘excuses’ stun guns are necessary is the fact they leave no mess.

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  13. cletereuy Says:

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