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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Three-quarters of people hit with RCMP tasers were unarmed: reports

November 18, 2007
The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Three out of four suspects stun-gunned by the RCMP were unarmed, indicates a review of 563 cases that shows Tasers are often used for compliance rather than to defuse major threats. A Canadian Press analysis of Taser incidents reported by the Mounties reveals that more than 79 per cent of those zapped were not brandishing a weapon. In just over one-fifth of cases, the suspect had a knife, bottle, club or other weapon.

The figures, compiled from hundreds of partially censored pages filed by RCMP officers, highlight police preference for the 50,000-volt tool that helps them control dangerous situations with usually minimal injury. But they also suggest a pattern of use by the Mounties as a quick means to keep relatively low-risk prisoners, drunks and unruly suspects in line.

Electronic guns have come under intense international scrutiny since the sudden death of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant whose videotaped ordeal at the Vancouver airport last month has been flashed around the globe. He died after being hit twice with a Taser and subdued by the RCMP.

The national police force is reviewing its Taser policies and procedures and is to report to Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day.

The 606 incidents analyzed by The Canadian Press took place between March 2002 and March 2005, the latest data available from the RCMP under the Access to Information Act. (In 43 cases, officers removed a Taser from its holster but did not fire.)

Most incidents by far were recorded in western Canada where the RCMP leads front-line policing. Many involved First Nations. A request for more recent reports of Taser use has gone unanswered by the Mounties for more than a year despite a complaint to the federal information commissioner.

RCMP Cpl. Gregg Gillis is the force's expert on Taser training and excited delirium - the mysterious condition of heart-pounding agitation used as a kind of catch-all label by those who can't otherwise explain why a growing number of people have died soon after being zapped. The Taser is the best option police have to gain control without causing injury or having to draw their guns in the most serious situations, Gillis said in an interview. "But it also is an appropriate option for us in other circumstances," he said. "We want to get quick and effective control, but we want to do it in a method that causes the least amount of harm." Tasers are an "intermediate device," he said. "Where an officer would consider using other tools like (pepper) spray or potentially a baton, the Taser can be assessed as a tool to be used in those same sort of circumstances." Asked about the dozens of reports that suggest police used Tasers against unarmed suspects whose behaviour prompted only verbal interventions before they were stunned, Gillis stressed the need for context.

The censored documents released to The Canadian Press offer "one portion of a total report," he said. "I'd want to go back and read the continuation report and (officers') notes of what led up to this." The RCMP routinely blanked out incident details and names of suspects before disclosing the forms. In many cases the on-duty Mounties did not completely fill in the reports. Gillis stressed that Tasers subdue suspects without the bruising of a baton or the widespread contamination of pepper spray - pain-based tactics that don't always work during adrenaline-pumped psychotic episodes.

In 105 cases, RCMP officers stunned prisoners they had detained - the vast majority of them unarmed, many of them native. Inmate advocate Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, says the wide use of Tasers in non-life-threatening cases is "a travesty." Stun guns were initially billed as a police alternative to lethal force, she said in an interview. "What we're seeing is that they're using them in situations to subdue, gain compliance or perhaps even punitively when someone has reacted in ways they don't approve of."

Amnesty International has repeatedly called on police to suspend using what it calls "electro-shock weapons." It cites 17 deaths in Canada and more than 280 in the United States. "Although coroners have attributed most such deaths to other causes, the Taser was found to have been a cause or possible contributory factor in more than 30 of the deaths," the human rights group said in a statement last week.

For its part, Arizona-based Taser International says of its device: "Specifically in Canada, while previous incidents were widely reported in the media as 'Taser deaths,' the role of the Taser device has been cleared in every case to date."

The six-level police force protocol begins with officer presence and builds in intensity to verbal commands; empty-hand control techniques; use of pepper spray, batons or Tasers; less-lethal force such as weapons that fire bean bags or rubber bullets; and finally deadly force.

RCMP officers in Chilliwack, B.C., fired a Taser at a prisoner in the detachment cells on Jan. 21, 2003 after only verbal intervention, says one report. "We don't want to fight with you. Just step into the cell and go to sleep," it says of an officer's commands before the unarmed inmate was jolted. "I don't want to use it, and you don't want me to either. Just go in." The abbreviated and censored report notes that the officer involved "feels strongly that the Taser was once again a success. No one was injured."

An officer guarding RCMP cells in Pukatawagan in northern Manitoba warned an offending prisoner this way: "Let me introduce you to the Taser. It is able to produce 50,000 volts of electricity. Co-operate with us and you will not be stunned." Nonetheless and without further noted intervention, the unarmed suspect was touch stunned - a close-range Taser zap that some have likened to leaning on a hot stove.

Similar incidents are cited repeatedly throughout the documents where it appears stun guns are used as much as a convenient tool of compliance as they are to control truly threatening situations. The reports also indicate the powerful weapons are not the injury-free alternative proponents claim. Several burns and lacerations are described, along with head injuries as Taser targets struck the floor.

"Upper probe penetrated bone matter," noted one officer after an unarmed suspect jolted for causing a disturbance in rural Ponoka, Alta., was hit with the small but sharp energy-conducting Taser hooks. "Probe twisted on impact. Required additional force to be removed."

A suicidal Prince George, B.C., resident threatening to end it all with a butcher knife was hooked in the upper left lip when police responded with a Taser zap on July 9, 2003.

Gillis of the RCMP says, for now, the Taser is the safest weapon even for the most agitated suspects. "The best available medical evidence at this point - and we've done extensive consultations ... is that the Taser does not place these people at increased risk. What does place them at increased risk is prolonged and elongated struggles where they resist. "If anything, we know that the other tools that we use place them at greater risk." Gillis stressed that police themselves have a vested interest in ensuring officers are properly trained to use the safest weapons when appropriate. "At the end of the day, we're members - and our families - of the very same community, and are subject to the same use of those tools by law enforcement officials."

Gillis says he hopes that before he leaves policing the Taser will be replaced "by something that's better, more humane and more effective. That's my goal. But for right now, I support the use of the tool because it's effective when it's used properly."

Figures on Taser use based on reports filed by the RCMP

OTTAWA - Number of events reviewed: 606

Dates: March 2002 to March 2005. Majority from 2004.

Number of events by province and territory: B.C. 230; Alberta 95; Saskatchewan 152; Manitoba 21; Ontario 1; New Brunswick 9; Nova Scotia 8; P.E.I. 21; Newfoundland and Labrador 27; Northwest Territories 10; Yukon 11; Nunavut 21.

Number of events in which Taser used: 563

Number of events in which Taser unholstered but not used: 43

Number of events in which suspect unarmed: 445

Number of events in which suspect armed: 118

(Source: Canadian Press analysis of RCMP Taser use reports)

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