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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Canada mulling recommendation to restrict taser use

December 12, 2007
Meagan Fitzpatrick, CanWest News Service

OTTAWA - The federal government says it will consider a recommendation made Wednesday by the RCMP's public complaints commission that the police force immediately restrict - but not suspend - the use of Tasers.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said he wanted to review the 10 recommendations contained in an interim report by Paul Kennedy, head of the RCMP's Commission for Public Complaints, before commenting further.

An RCMP spokeswoman said the police service had received the report and is preparing a response.

At Day's request last month, Kennedy reviewed the RCMP's protocols on the use of Tasers, the brand name for the conducted energy weapons used by the RCMP and other police services. According to his initial report the rules for using them and reporting their use are too lax.

Of the 10 recommendations, the most important is that Tasers be classified as "impact weapons" - instead of "intermediate" - devices, Kennedy said in an interview. "We're not recommending a moratorium, but we do call for immediate restrictions upon the use of this device," he said. "Put it up where it would be with others that are impact weapons, and you can still use them when officer safety is an issue."

Tasers are now in the same category as pepper spray, but if Kennedy's recommendation is adopted, they would be bumped up to the same level as a baton, for example, and different rules would apply.

In his report, Kennedy says the RCMP has strayed from the original intent and guidelines for Taser use, first introduced in 2001 when the force started using them. Since then, the restrictions have been loosened and Tasers have been employed "earlier than reasonable,"_partly because of their classification and other rule changes, Kennedy said.

Re-classifying the Taser would mean it could only be used in situations where a person is being "combative" or poses a risk of "death or grievous bodily harm" to the officer, him or herself, or the public.

The public complaints commission review was initiated after the high-profile death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 14. The Polish immigrant had just landed in Canada to begin his new life.

But after spending about nine hours in the airport, unable to connect with his waiting mother, the 40-year-old began acting erratically. There was speculation the man could have been suffering from a condition known as "excited delirium." The RCMP quickly moved in and used a Taser to subdue him. Dziekanski died a short time later.

The incident, caught on video by a bystander, drew international attention and prompted several investigations. Kennedy would not comment on the Dziekanski case on Wednesday because he will release a separate report on the incident at a later date.

He did mention in his report however, that signs of excited delirium - bizarre or aggressive behaviour, sweating, incoherent yelling - don't justify Taser use on their own, and that the subject must still show combative behaviour for its use to be justified. Kennedy said he plans to examine the connection between Taser use and excited delirium in more detail in his final report.

The RCMP's policy on Taser use has undergone several modifications in the last six years and Wednesday's report faults the force for allowing it to evolve "without a complete thoughtful analysis or strategic plan."

Kennedy says there are too many information gaps and a lack of data to back up why certain changes were made to the policy. A failure to properly collect and analyze Taser use data has resulted in a "critical shortfall in the management and oversight" of Taser use by the RCMP, the report concludes.

"In 2004, they made fairly significant policy changes which liberated (the Taser) from some pre-existing constraints and I would have thought that would have been accompanied by a detailed analysis of the facts that justified that," Kennedy told CanWest News Service. "And that was not in fact the case."

To address some of these problems, Kennedy recommends that a "National Use of Force Coordinator" be appointed to develop and implement national policies and training for all use of force equipment and to make sure the rules are being followed. He also suggests that for the next three years the RCMP issue quarterly reports on Taser use, and annual reports after that. He also wants to see officers re-certified to use Tasers every two years instead of three.

While the Conservative government did not immediately say Wednesday whether it would adopt any of Kennedy's recommendations, the Liberal party said the government should move on them without delay. "I think the minister of public safety should embrace and implement these recommendations as soon as possible," said Ujjal Dosanjh, public safety critic for the Liberal party."I believe that the recommendations respond very directly to concerns expressed across the country."

Dziekanski's death threw the Taser issue into the media spotlight and several more incidents involving injuries and death across the country were reported in subsequent weeks.

Amnesty International spokesman John Tackaberry said there are still too many unanswered questions about Tasers and the group wants their use suspended. But, as long as they are being used by police, the recommendations should be implemented, he said.

Following the release of the report, Prince Edward Island's premier Robert Ghiz announced that province will conduct a review of the use of Tasers. There have been two recent Taser-related deaths in Atlantic Canada and a third is under investigation.

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