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Saturday, November 24, 2007

RCMP revised taser policy to allow multiple jolts

November 24, 2007

Three months before Robert Dziekanski was tasered, the RCMP adopted a change in force protocol that allows officers to fire multiple shocks to control people under certain circumstances.

Police say medical evidence shows that, without tasers, prolonged and dangerous struggles occur with people suffering from what they term "excited delirium." It prompted the force to release new rules in August allowing officers to use tasers multiple times to more quickly gain control.

The RCMP define excited delirium as a potentially fatal "state of extreme mental and physiological excitement that is characterized by extreme agitation, hyperthermia, hostility, exceptional strength and endurance without apparent fatigue."

Until August, officers trained to use stun guns were cautioned to avoid using them more than once because of concerns about health effects. However, the force's belief that excited-delirium symptoms can escalate and cause death outweighed their worries about the impact of multiple shocks.

It is not known if Mr. Dziekanski was suffering from a so-called excited delirium episode when he was tasered twice while surrounded by four RCMP officers last month at Vancouver's International Airport. But RCMP familiar with the incident have hinted that the officers who responded believed him to fit that category.

One of the RCMP's trainers told The Globe and Mail that tasers are the "most humane way" to rein in people believed to be suffering from mental distress. "Someone in a full-blown excited-delirium event cannot respond to you when you try to negotiate with them," Corporal Gregg Gilles, one of the RCMP's taser trainers based in British Columbia, said. "We're telling officers if they think they're dealing with an excited-delirium event, if a second [taser] application will allow you to get them under control, use of a taser is best."

Cpl. Gilles said the RCMP's policy could change again once the investigations into Mr. Dziekanski's death are concluded. But he said it's unlikely the force, which was one of the first in the country to adopt tasers, will drop the weapon.

The most current policy was relaxed after the force said it came across new medical information about how to best handle people with symptoms of excited delirium. Cpl. Gilles said officers are taught to get people suffering from excited delirium under control as quickly as possible in order to get them into a state where they can safely get medical help. "They can't be treated until they're controlled," he said. "Taser is the tool that gives us the best option."

But the term "excited delirium" is not formally recognized by the World Health Organization nor the American Medical Association as an actual psychological or medical condition. However, the condition is being used increasingly by coroners tasked with attributing causes of death among victims in police custody. David Evans, Ontario's regional supervising coroner for investigations, described it as a "forensic term" not a medical one. "I think previous to the description of excited delirium, [it] was sometimes called custody death," he said.

The RCMP, meanwhile, refer to the condition as a syndrome and a seminar on how to recognize the trademark signs of excited delirium features prominently in the force's two-day, 20-hour taser training course. During that course, officers are told people in a state of excited delirium do not feel pain, meaning officers' traditional methods of restraining them -- with bodily force, a steel baton or pepper spray -- are rendered less effective. Officers are also taught that if they cannot handcuff a person they think is suffering from excited delirium a few seconds after the first taser shot, they should shoot again rather than resort to other methods of force, Cpl. Gilles said.

"Clearly you don't want to do multiple exposures if you don't need to, but if the choice was to have to punch the person or hit them, or do another taser, you'd rather do the second taser exposure," he said. Still, Cpl. Gilles conceded that the policy on multiple taser shots "may be hazardous. We don't know." But until more research is done, he added: "What officers are taught is to press the trigger, release and assess."

The RCMP have not made any changes to their protocol in the weeks since Mr. Dziekanski's death. But other police forces have taken a hard look at the use of tasers. The Yukon Department of Justice has announced an immediate moratorium on use of the weapons. And the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary has temporarily suspended its purchase of tasers for front-line officers. "We were in the process of obtaining the equipment so we could begin training our front-line officers," said Constable Paul Davis, spokesman for the RNC. "The intention was to equip the front-line officers. Things have changed. We decided that we would wait to see the outcome of these reviews before we make those purchases." RNC officers began carrying firearms about a decade ago. Only the tactical unit, which responds to the most volatile circumstances, has been armed with tasers. But Constable Davis said no one has received a jolt of electricity from an RNC taser.

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