CANADA – Was the Toronto Police Services Board misled into approving taser use? (2008-10-02)

Published on October 2 2008 by admin

Patrick Bolland: Was the Toronto Police Services Board misled into approving taser use? (2008-10-02)

Department of psychology, Collège Montorency

In a recent letter simply entitled «Tasers» (1), Alok Mukherjee, Chair of the Toronto Police Services Board presented the Board’s reasons for adopting tasers. This is a rejoinder to his letter. Mukherjee informed CMAJ readers that «the civilian governance body of the Toronto Police Service [has] grappled with the use and abuse of tasers for some time now» and welcomed the interest of the CMAJ in the debate on tasers, as in the 12 May editorial(2). Rather tantalisingly, Mukherjee wrote he «was roused less by what Stanbrook had to propose than by the fact that CMAJ had finally thought fit to take up this issue». In other words, the content, critical of the taser, was secondary.

How did the Toronto Police Services Board reach its decision to approve taser use by Toronto police-officers? According to the «Taser» letter, two major experts were consulted. The Toronto medical officer of health, who is identified by Mukherjee as having no connections with the manufacturer of the taser, Taser International, was clearly reluctant to commit himself: «[He] was cautious about offering advice in the absence of sufficient evidence, and he emphasized the need for more independent research on the risks and benefits of the use of tasers.» (ibid.)

However the other expert mentioned by Mukherjee, Dr James Cairns, was not so reluctant: “Ontario’s deputy chief coroner made an impassioned presentation to our board, advocating the use of tasers. He assured us that his published, peer-reviewed research had shown that not a single death could be directly attributed to the use of tasers. He said that the deaths associated with taser use were a result of excited delirium caused by other factors, such as drug use.” (ibid)

Mukherjee pointedly does not mention whether Cairns has any links to Taser International. Had the Board chairman read the Globe & Mail on 30 November 2007, or had he done a quick Google search on «Cairns» and «Taser International», he would have soon seen that “[o]ver the past two years Cairns has attended two conferences hosted by Taser International, as well as spoken at a closely affiliated organization [see below], … Taser International has both times paid for Cairns hotel and travel expenses. While this in itself is not unusual, this whole relationship becomes suspect when one considers that Cairns has been a vocal supporter of the use of Tasers in Canada.”(3)

This probably accounts for Cairns’ «impassioned presentation to [the] board.» He has been a leading exponent of «EDS», the controversial «excited delirium syndrome», which was vindicated in a November 2007 RCMP Report, entitled «Report on Conducted Energy Weapons and Excited Delirium Syndrome»(4). This report even recommends using the taser M26 as way of intervening with subject suffering from EDS: «Current expert consensus indicates that the use of the CEW followed up by a quick and effective method of restraint may be the best intervention method in order to gain control and provide medical assistance for EDS.» (ibid) (This is an interesting use of the tem “expeert consensus”, which certainly does not include many emergency medicine specialists nor traumatiligists.)

The «closely-affiliated organization» referred to in the earler quotation from the Globe and Mail is the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths (IPICD) Inc., a research centre. Cairns was scheduled to give a presentation (all expenses paid) at the October 2007 IPICD conference, but declined at the last minute. One of the panels at this conference was «user level Excited Delirium Roll Call Training Program» (5).

But what exactly is the IPICD? According to its mission statement it is : «a clearinghouse, resource center, and training provider dedicated to providing interested parties with objective, timely, accurate, qualitative, and quantitative information, training, and operational guidance for the prevention and management of sudden- and in-custody deaths.”(6)

However, as the Globe & Mail pointed out on 28 November 2007, “Michael Brave, Taser’s national litigation counsel, «¦ a former intelligence chief with the U.S. Department of Justice, is also listed as a director for the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths Inc., a private, Las Vegas-based company headed by a man named John Peters, who often acts as a course instructor for Taser International at the company’s headquarters in Arizona.”(7)

Interestingly, the RCMP has no hesitation in providing links to IPICD conferences «“ all speakers invariably support the Institute’s underlying beliefs «“ on its official site.(8)

One might mention that the RCMP «Report on Conducted Energy Weapons and Excited Delirium Syndrome» does not actually claim that EDS is a diagnosis, rather it is a «state of being»: “Does excited delirium exist as a medical condition? Critics cite the fact that excited delirium is not listed in the American Medical Association’s list of medical diagnoses, the Canadian Medical Association’s list of diagnoses or the DSM IV/V as evidence that excited delirium «does not exist». If excited delirium is a true medical condition, why is it not listed as a diagnosis in these publications? Because it is not a diagnosis. It is a state of being or a condition for which many underlying explanatory diagnoses are possible.”(9)

Yet coroners in Canada (and medical examiners in the United States) are assigning causality to this nebulous «state of being» and not to the underlying causes. This amounts to a post-mortem diagnosis of a mortal mental condition without any psychiatric input in persons who had no previous history of its incidence and, very often, no previous psychiatric history). The term is not recognized by the WHO or any national psychiatric or medical association in the world. The taser itself is blameless in the 350 deaths – 23 in Canada – that have followed the shocks it has delivered, since it leaves no unique «signature» or biomarker for coroners to look for. Indeed, any coroner who assigns even part of the responsibility for a death following taser use to the taser itself faces a civil court lawsuit for defamation of the company’s product. But that is another story.

Perhaps we should conclude, in the footsteps of the RCMP report on «CEWs and EDS»: “Adopting a reactionary stance, such as suspending all CEW use, will not only remove a modern, humane force option proven to reduce citizen and law enforcement injuries, but will also reinforce over- responsiveness to anecdote and abandonment of scientific principles in the evaluation of in-custody deaths. This would expose unnecessarily the public and law enforcement personnel to increased risk during police interaction and/or violent confrontations.”(10)

Such “overresponsiveness to anecdote and abandonment of scientific principles” is precisely a rejection of what is increasingly being recognized as abuse of the taser M26 and of all those who raise serious medical and moral questions about individuals held in custody who die after they are tasered. Their deaths are attributed to their own psychiatric or pharmacological problems, which typically combine into the highly-unscientific “excited delirium syndrome”. The taser leaves no biomarker, and Taser International does not recognize the notion of “interaction effects” well-known in the scientific community.

Quite simply stated, the 23 people who died following the use of the taser in Canada since 2000 would almost certainly all still be alive had they not been tasered. Moreover – and here we are really entering Catch 22 territory – faced with a number of police-officers screaming “Taser! Taser! Taser!” and point the space-age pistol at you, with its red laser beam directed to your heart … this is enough to make anyone highly agitated. This is not just “anecdotal”, any more than the causal relationship between cigarettes and lung cancer was anecdotal. Tasers are not “saving lives every day” as “Taser International” would have us believe, but putting lives (and not police-officiers’ lives) in danger whenever they are being used. A true health hazard.

To return to where we started, it would seem that the Toronto Police Services Board was seriously mistaken when it authorized taser use based on the available information, as described in Mukherjee’s letter to the CMAJ. Maybe the wiser choice would be precisely to halt further use of the taser sine die?

Conflict of interests: None


1. Mukherjee O. Tasers [letter]. CMAJ 2008;179: 342 [PubMed].

2. Stanbrook MB. Tasers in medicine: an irreverent call for proposals [editorial]. CMAJ 2008;178:1401-2. [PubMed].

3. Aslphono C, Leeder J and El Akkad O. Taser firms picked up coroner’s lecture tab. Globe & Mail, 30/11/2007)

4. Stuart B and Lawrence C: Report on Conducted Energy Weapons and Excited Delirium Syndrome. RCMP 29/11/ 2007 (http://www.rcmp- (The on-line edition has no page numbering.)



7. El Akkad O and Leeder J: How Taser International wins in the courtroom. Globe and Mail: 28/11/2007.


9. Stuart and Lawrence, op.cit.

10 ibid.

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