Nova Scotia

What happens when stun guns like Tasers don't incapacitate someone?

In the hands of police, stun guns like Tasers are designed to save lives, but when the weapons don't incapacitate someone there can be fatal consequences — from officers using lethal force to a person continuing to harm themselves.  

'The family sit there and percolate in their absolute grief wondering what the hell happened': lawyer

Tasers fire darts with wires attached to them. The wires deliver an electric shock to a person, temporarily immobilising them. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette/Canadian Press)

In the hands of police, stun guns like Tasers are designed to save lives, but when the weapons don't incapacitate someone there can be fatal consequences — from officers using lethal force to a person continuing to harm themselves.

In New Brunswick and in Nova Scotia, at least two people have died in recent years after the weapons didn't immobilize them.

Nova Scotia RCMP say stun guns are effective 87 per cent of the time at making a person comply with police orders, including instances when the weapon is simply drawn and not fired. Last year, its officers in the province drew their stun guns 59 times, firing them in 17 cases.

But the success rate isn't high enough for Temitope Oriola, a criminology professor who studied stun guns at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He said he doesn't know of anyone tracking how often stun gun failures lead to police using deadly force.

"Some fields cannot afford any real margin of error," said Oriola. "Within a field such as policing you've got to get it right practically all of the time, and this is where those tensions arise. This tool still needs further refinement."

In some cases, it's not obvious why a stun gun doesn't incapacitate a person. In other cases, it's more clear: For instance, a stun gun doesn't work unless two or more of the darts it fires connect with a person.

'No sharing of evidence'

Rodney Levi was one person a stun gun didn't work on. His family thinks that may have played a part in his death at the hands of police. 

On June 12, officers responded to a complaint of an unwanted person at a home near Miramichi, N.B., according to an RCMP spokesperson. When they arrived, RCMP said, they faced Levi, who was holding knives. 

They tried to use a Taser on Levi multiple times. But it didn't immobilize him, and he was shot and killed by an officer. It's not clear why the Taser didn't work. A coroner's inquest has been ordered into Levi's death.

Rodney Levi, 48, was shot and killed by RCMP officer responding to a report of an 'unwanted person.' (Submitted by Tara Louise Perley)

"Had that weapon been more effective than it was, then I believe that we would, obviously, have a different outcome," said Alisa Lombard, a lawyer representing Levi's family.

"The family continues to be in deep mourning. You know, there's essentially zero feedback on what's happening, no sharing of evidence. [They] let the family sit there and percolate in their absolute grief wondering what the hell happened and how the heck it could have happened."      

Alisa Lombard is a lawyer and partner at the law firm Semaganis Worme Lombard. (Submitted by Alisa Lombard)

In September 2017, a Cape Breton, N.S., man also died after a stun gun didn't work. The man was trying to harm himself by jumping from an overpass, and a Cape Breton Regional Police officer fired his Taser to try to immobilize him. It struck the man but but didn't stop him, and an instant later, he died by suicide, according to a report by Nova Scotia's police watchdog, the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT). 

Multiple reasons stun guns fail

Tasers and other stun guns can fail for a number of reasons, according to RCMP Sgt. Wayne Knapman, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the training section for the RCMP in Nova Scotia and the senior use-of-force expert in the division.

Stun guns work by firing a pair of darts attached to wires. When the darts connect with a person's body they form an electric circuit. The wires carry a jolt of electricity that causes an uncontrollable muscle contraction that usually immobilizes someone, forcing them to the ground.

A Taser's dart or probe penetrates the skin when the weapon is fired. This probe was shown during a training course at the VPD Tactical Training Centre in Vancouver in 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When one of the darts, also called probes, doesn't strike the person, the electric circuit can't be formed and the person isn't immobilized, said Knapman. Loose-fitting clothing can keep the probes from reaching a person, preventing the weapon from working. 

In investigating the suicide in Cape Breton, for instance, SIRT concluded that one of the Taser's darts entered the man's back, while the other landed in the hem of his shorts and did not penetrate his skin. 

There is also a "defensive mechanism" that can counteract the effects of a stun gun, said Knapman, but he wouldn't reveal what that was. 

Stun guns make officers' work safer, police say

Despite the limitations, Knapman said, Tasers and other stun guns are an excellent tool and make police work much safer for officers and the public. He said in some cases a Taser can safely resolve what might otherwise be a lethal encounter. 

"It is an electrical device, there are times it can fail for multiple reasons … we can't rely on that one tool, we have to have multiple options," said Knapman. "All our tools have the possibility of failing, even our firearms." 

The man on the ground in this photo was Tasered by Halifax Police in December 2019 after allegedly assaulting an officer. (Name withheld by request)

He said there are no long-lasting effects from the use of a Taser compared to weapons like pepper spray or a baton. He said a Taser jolt lasts for five seconds, versus pepper spray, which can be painful for an hour or more.  

"If we use our baton, well anytime you swing a steel bar, you tend to cause bodily harm on a subject," he said.     

Still, Lombard said the public needs to discuss what an appropriate use of force by police is and if those standards should change.

"There's a really big difference between being administered an electromagnetic shock and being dealt a fatal blow from a firearm," said Lombard. 

"I mean, how do you jump from one being sufficient to the other being justifiable in a matter of seconds? It doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

Not always effective

Tasers are used any time an officer feels they or the public are going to be seriously hurt by someone, said Knapman. If an officer is in that kind of danger, they could also draw their gun. In fact, if an officer is alone in that kind of situation, they would draw their gun and not their Taser.  

Temitope Oriola is a criminology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He says stun guns are a tool that need 'further refinement.' (Submitted by Temitope Oriola)

In Nova Scotia, there have been other incidents in recent years when stun guns haven't been effective. 

In October 2017, a man in Lower Sackville was trying to harm himself so officers used a stun gun on him, but it "appeared to have minimal effect as the AP (Affected Party) continued to be combative," said a SIRT report

In September 2018, there was another incident in Lower Sackville where the RCMP responded to a report of a woman becoming violent after taking drugs. Officers fired a stun gun at her, and the darts struck her midsection and leg. She was momentarily stunned, then removed one of the darts, ending the effects of the weapon. 

The woman went on to kick and punch the officers trying to restrain her, according to a report from SIRT.  

Oriola said when stun guns don't work, the person who was hit with one can become even more agitated and lash out. He said police forces across the country use stun guns far too frequently and should focus on de-escalation, ways of calming people down to reduce the chances of conflict. 

Knapman said the RCMP already train their members to do that.  

Oriola says many police forces overuse stun guns. (Shaun Fellows/EPA)

Need to zero in on cause

Axon, the company that manufactures Tasers, said its weapons require two or more probes to connect with a target and they must hit sufficient muscle mass to effectively incapacitate someone.

In an email, the company said police forces need to clearly identify why a Taser doesn't work and if it was caused by environmental or situational factors versus a weapon error. Figuring out the cause of the failure will determine whether more officer training is needed or if a weapon needs to be serviced. 

Axon said when a person is not incapacitated by a Taser it is usually because one of the required conditions for the weapon's functionality are not met. 

The company's website said its weapons have saved 242,553 people from death or serious bodily injury. 

Oriola said more independent research and testing needs to be done to verify those claims.  

Lombard wants police forces across the country to cut down on how often they use all their weapons. She said communication is key.  

"You know people can talk," she said. "In many of the circumstances we've seen it certainly would have helped."  

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Burke

Reporter

David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.

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