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Higher Education

Case study: Jim Bronskill on a CBC–CP joint investigation of Taser use

Q. What was the name of your story/project?

A. “Putting Tasers to the Test.”

Q. Where was it published/broadcast?

A. The CBC/Radio-Canada teamed up with The Canadian Press news agency to undertake an unprecedented multimedia analysis of the Taser and the RCMP’s use of these stun guns. The two news organizations, both with a longstanding interest in Tasers, collaborated on data analysis of the RCMP’s stun-gun use; identification of vital trends; interviews; and preparation of stories for newspapers, websites, radio, and television—amplifying the impact of investigative journalism in the public interest.

At the same time, CBC/Radio-Canada commissioned the largest independent test of Tasers ever conducted. The scientific examination found that more than 10 per cent of units tested were either defective or behaving unexpectedly, with some discharging significantly more electrical current than the manufacturer’s standard.

The Canadian Press–CBC/Radio-Canada investigation:

  • revealed the extent to which the RCMP was shielding details of Taser use, creating a public backlash that prompted the Mounties to disclose more information about stun-gun firings;
  • showed how the RCMP was using the potent weapon contrary to internal policy; and
  • raised serious questions about the safety of Taser guns through independent laboratory tests, leading the RCMP and several provinces to test Tasers for potentially dangerous flaws.

Reporters: Sandra Bartlett, Frédéric Zalac, Jim Bronskill, Sue Bailey

Producers: Susanne Reber, Alex Shprintsen, David McKie

TV Camera: Georges Laszuk

TV Editor: Kris Fleerackers

Editorial Assistants: Kevin Wiltshire, Darlene Parsons

Data analysis: Phil Harbord

Q. How did you get the idea for the story/project?

A. The Taser wasn’t a big deal to most Canadians when both news organizations began examining the way Canadian police officers in Canada use the weapon billed as a “less lethal” alternative to conventional firearms.

The Canadian Press undertook one of the first in-depth examinations of Tasers with a 2004 series that raised questions about the adequacy of policy and training standards. The investigation showed that RCMP officers must file a form each time a Taser is used, beginning a lengthy battle for records of stun-gun firings under the Access to Information Act.

Radio-Canada began researching Tasers in 2005 and produced a TV documentary the following year on the success of its manufacturer, Taser International, in distributing the weapon first to hundreds, then to thousands, of police forces without independent research on the device’s safety. CBC/Radio-Canada broadcast a series that revealed that while most police services in Canada had intended the device to be used instead of the gun, it was in fact being fired more frequently in situations that were far less than critical or dangerous.

Q. What initial research did you do to confirm that the story was valid? What was your initial theory as to what the story would be?

A. The October 2007 death of Robert Dziekanski, and the subsequent release of a shocking amateur videotape in which the Polish immigrant was hit by the stun gun with little warning raised an urgent question: Was this an isolated case, or was it typical of how the Mounties used their Tasers? The Canadian Press thought the use-of-force reporting data received so far, covering 2002 to 2005, might yield some answers.

The primary finding was startling: analysis of 563 Taser firings indicated three-quarters of suspects were unarmed. The data also documented a host of related injuries—including head wounds, burns, and lacerations—linked to a weapon police have touted as less harmful than pepper spray or batons.

The figures also revealed a disturbing tendency to painfully jolt suspects after only the most cursory interaction. Far from being a tool to defuse major conflicts that might otherwise have required lethal force, officers repeatedly used the Taser as a compliance tool. Numerous cases involved detainees—many of them Aboriginal—held in RCMP cells.

Q. Once you had confirmed that you had a story, how did you plan out your research?

A. Dziekanski’s death persuaded CBC/Radio-Canada it was the right time to take a closer look at what kind of testing had been done by Canadian police authorities prior to adopting Tasers. It took access-to-information requests and six months of repeated calls to the RCMP to learn that little had been done to verify the electrical output of Tasers.

Furthermore, in analyzing the research material the police force used in making decisions, we realized the RCMP had not only relied on some seriously flawed studies, but had accepted information from Taser International at face value. This was strong incentive for CBC/Radio-Canada to commission its own tests.

Q. What secondary source research was required? What primary sources did you use? How did they contribute to the story?

A. We found one of the many people who had been stunned with a Taser and featured in our pieces through discovery of his online comments in response to a CBC forum on stun guns. The files of the BC inquiry into Dziekanski’s death were also helpful.

Q. What were the most important interviews for the story? Why?

A. The news organizations painted a fuller picture of Dziekanski’s last hours through an extensive interview with his mother, Zofia Cisowski, and details from documents released by the Canada Border Services Agency under the Access to Information Act.

Interviews with RCMP Inspector Troy Lightfoot and Corporal Gregg Gillis, as well as RCMP complaints commission chair Paul Kennedy, were also key.

In the weeks after October 2007, editorial writers and citizens in Canada continued to speculate about whether the Taser killed Robert Dziekanski. There was no indication that the stun gun used on him was going to be tested.

Taser International maintained that its electric guns would effectively incapacitate suspects and still have a very high margin of safety. In 2006, the company proudly showed CBC/Radio-Canada every step of the assembly line at its plant in Scottsdale, Arizona. At that time, a Taser International executive told us that all Tasers are fired with exactly the same output, then none would perform outside the specified range. That assurance was repeated when the president of Taser International came to Vancouver to address the Braidwood Inquiry examining Dziekanski’s death. He unequivocally stated that his device could not produce more power than the specifications because the weapon was already operating at 100 per cent. He was adamant that police forces need not test their Tasers.

CBC/Radio-Canada decided to undertake what became the largest independent testing of Tasers. Through sources and freedom-of-information laws, we obtained the studies and tests that Canadian authorities had relied on. Several experts analyzed the studies and concluded that they were either extremely limited or lacked scientific rigour. We also obtained a testing protocol drafted by Taser International, which was valuable in designing our tests.

We hired National Technical Services (www.ntscorp.com), an internationally accredited engineering and testing firm, to randomly test more than 40 units of the most popular model, the Taser X26. The guns, all used by US law-enforcement officers, came from several police departments. The results were troubling: more than 10 per cent of the guns were either defective or significantly off specifications—some of them putting out 50 per cent more electrical current than the manufacturer’s standards, thus significantly reducing the safety margin. Also, low serial number units were much more likely to produce too much current.

Pierre Savard, a professor of biomedical engineering at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, designed the technical procedure for our testing and analyzed the laboratory’s results. He took part without payment because he felt there was a strong public interest in doing so. Other electrical engineers then reviewed his work.

Through freedom-of-information requests, we also discovered that police forces returned Tasers to the manufacturer at a rate of 15 to 30 per cent. This data confirmed some of the allegations from former employees who had testified in a shareholder lawsuit against the company. They had alleged that there was a very high percentage of defective units coming off of the assembly line and that there were a lot of returns to the company. We tracked down some of those former employees, and they told us that, at times, over 70 per cent of the units produced were defective, yet there was a lot of pressure, both from investors and police forces, to deliver them.

One very important part of the story was the analysis of our test results using an international electrical standard. The analysis conducted by Savard concluded that the risk of death could be very high in certain circumstances. We contacted some members of the international committee responsible for that standard to verify our findings. Immediately after the broadcast, we learned Taser was using a 20-year-old version of the international standard, and was not aware of important changes included in the 2007 version.

In the course of our work, we contacted eight electrical engineers, and several medical doctors and researchers. We also talked to a dozen police officers, tracked down former Taser International employees and some of the company’s distributors, and obtained an interview with the RCMP and the head of the Canadian Police Research Centre.

The morning after the Taser testing stories aired, the Quebec government announced all X26 Tasers used by the province’s police forces would be pulled off the streets and tested. They also committed to randomly testing the more recent models. The RCMP followed with a similar announcement, and within days, several provinces and major police forces across Canada said they would withdraw early Taser X26 models until they were properly tested. Some provinces, like British Columbia, announced they would begin regular testing of Tasers.

Taser International attacked the credibility and methodology of the study saying it was “not relevant on a medical safety perspective.” Ironically, Taser International criticized part of the methodology from its own testing protocol. No correction or clarification was published or necessary. Experts who reviewed our test results confirmed the study was valid and significant.

Q. Did you use freedom-of-information requests for the story? If so, what requests did you make, and how many?

A. After a wait of 15 months, the RCMP began releasing new data under the Access to Information Act. However, the Mounties stripped crucial information from the official report forms, including whether suspects were armed, the precise dates of firings, and what police officers had done before resorting to the Taser. In fact, the force had excised some material from the 2002–5 period that was previously released to The Canadian Press. In doing so, the RCMP had effectively reclassified information about Taser use.

Q. How important were these requests for the story?

A. The RCMP’s refusal to be more forthcoming with the information it could locate formed the basis of the first story in the joint investigative series by The Canadian Press and CBC/Radio-Canada. Reaction was swift and widespread. A 26 March Globe and Mail editorial on the stripping of record details, “Editing out the essence,” castigated the national police force for its “trust-us” mentality. An editorial cartoon in the Ottawa Citizen was less subtle. It portrayed a reporter flat on his back, eyeglasses and papers askew, after being Tasered by a Mountie behind an “RCMP Access to Information” service counter.

A subsequent review ordered by RCMP commissioner William Elliott resulted in the RCMP’s releasing more data: We could now say whether people hit with the stun guns were armed, and whether they were drunk or high at the time. “I believe we need to do a better job in assessing and factoring in the public interest,” Elliott would tell a gathering in April.

Despite these challenges, the investigative team spent weeks compiling the best picture possible of RCMP Taser use, painstakingly typing numerous incident details from thousands of individual forms into the computer database. This groundbreaking analysis, illustrated with vivid details of telling cases, revealed that RCMP use of the controversial stun guns had spiked to 1000 incidents annually from just 600 in 2005.

But there was more: Officers fired their Tasers more than once in almost half the confrontations. We found many people who had been Tasered three, four, five, or more times, and sometimes by more than one officer. RCMP policy in place since 2005 states that “multiple deployment or continuous cycling of the CEW [conducted energy weapon] may be hazardous to a subject. Unless situational factors dictate otherwise, do not cycle the CEW repeatedly, for more than 15–20 seconds at a time against a subject.”

Despite those new rules, the percentage of Taser incidents in which the weapon was fired multiple times crept up to 45 per cent in 2007 from 42 per cent two years earlier.

We also discovered that nearly one-third of suspects jolted with stun guns later received medical treatment. Furthermore, cross-referencing with earlier data showed that some who required medical treatment did not get it. For example, in one incident report, a person shot with a Taser suffered “burn marks,” but was not examined at a medical facility. The actual number of people requiring medical attention may have been higher given the fact that many Taser reports had been filled out incorrectly.

New waves of indignation followed these revelations about how suspects were zapped repeatedly with a weapon that had not been independently proven as safe.

A 13 June editorial in the National Post, “The shocks keep coming,” said The Canadian Press–CBC investigation had introduced a “distressing new data point” into the debate around Tasers.

How can figures indicating an increasingly frequent use of a torturously painful push-button weapon be defended? Were criminals more violent in 2007 than they were in 2002? Did they gain height and weight? Did they become more intractable under arrest?

Logic points toward the conclusion that had been previously supported mostly by anecdote: As time goes by, police forces equipped with the Taser become more casual toward its use, and less responsible, even when there are strong written guidelines supposedly in place.

The statistics and conclusions presented in the stories were not challenged. On the contrary, they were supported in the following months by two independent analyses.

The first report, prepared by the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP, confirmed our findings and, having access to uncensored data, underscored additional evidence that the weapon was often used inappropriately.

The second, written by a consultant hired by the RCMP, examined the force’s decision to adopt the device and its subsequent use. It criticized the RCMP for relying too heavily on Taser International for research and scientific studies, sloppy use-of-force record keeping, and failure to regularly test the weapons.

Q. Many projects have a turning point when it all seems to fall into place. Was there such a point for this project? If so, please describe in detail that turning point.

A. The RCMP released thousands of pages of Taser data the Thursday before Easter weekend. Out of fear of being scooped, we spent three days hand-counting and broadly assessing the content disclosed. This led to our story on lack of disclosure about details of RCMP Taser use—a piece that also documented the significant rise in stun gun firings.

Q. How many stories did you write?

A. Literally dozens of print, radio, television, and online pieces.

Q. On what dates did the stories run?

A. Principal stories were aired and published throughout 2008—beginning 30 and 31 January, then 24–30 March, 15 April, 11–12 and 17–18 June, and 4–6 and 11 December.

Q. What was the most difficult thing about doing this story/project?

A. Many RCMP Taser reports were poorly filled out. In fact, in tracing dates of some serious injuries and deaths reported in the media, we found no official reports of these Taser incidents at all. For several months, submitting the form to headquarters had been optional, meaning gaps in the record. In addition, there was considerable effort involved in finding an appropriate lab to do the Taser tests and ensure the integrity of the process.

Q. What was the most satisfying part of the project?

A. The most satisfying part of the project was bringing statistical and scientific rigour to a much-debated and highly polarized subject: the RCMP’s use of Tasers.

Q. What outcomes did you have in mind when the investigation began? To what extent were they realized?

A. Our goal, particularly in analyzing Taser use, was to document, with some statistical precision, how the RCMP was employing these weapons. It allowed us to move beyond the anecdotal evidence to state with a good degree of certainty what was happening. It is a reminder to me that while hunches and isolated reports are valuable, there is no substitute for years’ worth of data that paints a reliable picture.

Q. What other comments would you make about this project?

A. Revealing pieces prepared by colleagues across both news organizations augmented the core team’s investigative work. Reporters from the agencies’ Alberta bureaus collaborated on a story about Jason Doan, who died in Red Deer after being hit with a Taser. Reporters in Vancouver examined cases in which disabled people had been hit with stun guns; they also looked closely at the RCMP’s cavalier emails to staff after Dziekanski’s death.

Q. Six years after the original stories aired and published, what would you say is their legacy?

A. It is almost always difficult to assess the impact of journalism. Rare are the stories that have a clear, immediate effect on public policy, or that result in someone resigning. More often, one suspects, even original or compelling information on a subject of public interest slips quietly into the stream of debate, influencing the discussion in a way that’s hard—if not impossible—to measure. It is also challenging to separate the dramatic impact of Robert Dziekanski’s death from the effect of subsequent coverage about Tasers. So I am reluctant to try to gauge the precise impact of the Taser stories that The Canadian Press and CBC/Radio-Canada did individually and jointly.

Having said that, I think it’s fair to say the pieces helped raise consciousness about the stun guns, both generally and possibly in the minds of the police officers who use them. In short, Tasers were suddenly treated with more caution and skepticism than they were in the 2002–6 period, something borne out by the RCMP usage statistics. In addition, other media began looking at how the stun guns were used by regional and municipal police forces across the country as data became available. It would be well worth revisiting the topic in a serious way, given that Tasers are still widely used by Canadian police and there continues to be scientific research on the physical effects of these devices.

Q. And is there anything now that you would do differently?

A. I don’t think there is much that we would have done differently, except perhaps to begin analyzing the data sooner. I often wonder how the first statistical story published by The Canadian Press would have been received had we done the data analysis before Dziekanski was Tasered rather than immediately after. Would it have been a passing blip, lacking a high-profile news hook, or would it have had the sort of traction our pieces later did? Again, these kinds of questions are tricky to answer. Perhaps it is best not to dwell on them, but simply to ask questions and look for trends in the data, keeping a firm hand on the pulse of a story when we sense something is there—before, during and after the big headlines appear.