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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Curb use of tasers to dangerous situations only, says RCMP watchdog

December 12, 2007
The Canadian Press

Had the Vancouver police only been allowed to use the taser on "combative" people, they would NOT have been allowed to taser my brother who was - at most - "resistant" and I believe he would still be alive today. The THIRTEEN police officers who were there might have been able to come up with other alternatives. Nor, I suspect, would many of the other police have used tasers on people who subsequently died.

OTTAWA - The RCMP watchdog says Mounties should drastically curb their increasing reliance on Taser stun guns to guard against "usage creep."

The Commission for Complaints Against the RCMP says the 50,000-volt Taser should only be used in touch-stun or firing mode when suspects are "combative" or pose a risk of "death or grievous bodily harm." Paul Kennedy, head of the commission, cited "usage creep" as a major concern warranting immediate action.

Taser use "has expanded to include subduing resistant subjects who do not pose a threat of grievous bodily harm or death and on whom the use of lethal force would not be an option," he said in an interim report released Wednesday. His 53-page report says the Taser restrictions should apply in cases of so-called "excited delirium" in which suspects are in a heart-pounding state of agitation. Excited delirium has been repeatedly blamed to explain the sudden deaths of several people soon after being zapped.

Kennedy's interim report stops short of calling for a moratorium on the widely used stun guns. But it recommends revamped Taser training, stricter reporting requirements and more research on the controversial devices.

It follows an international furor over the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski. The 40-year-old man died Oct. 14 after he was repeatedly Tasered and pinned to the floor by RCMP officers at Vancouver International Airport. Dziekanski is recorded as the 18th person in Canada to die in recent years after being hit by a Taser. Amnesty International says at least 280 people have died since July 2001 in the United States.

Taser International, makers of the device, stress that the weapons have never been directly blamed for a death.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day asked Kennedy last month to look at how RCMP use the electronic guns, which can be fired from a distance of several metres or applied at close range. "I will review this interim report before commenting further," Day said Wednesday. "Our government takes this matter seriously and recognizes that Canadians must have full confidence in their national police force."

Kennedy, whose full report is due next summer, says Tasers should be considered an "impact weapon" rather than an intermediate tool such as pepper spray or a baton. The six-level police force protocol currently 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.

Some 2,800 Tasers are being used by more than 9,100 RCMP members across the country. Mounties have wielded the electronic guns over 3,000 times since their introduction in December 2001. Yet Kennedy found no annual report has been produced, nor has the police force thoroughly examined its statistical information on Taser use in developing related policy.

"So clearly from my perspective more can be done," Kennedy said in an interview. "I'd rather see things done yesterday, but if they're done today I'm happy. "We live in a very dynamic situation and it's never too late to do something. And I think this is a window of opportunity for the police to look at this and say, 'OK, these are solid recommendations and let's do it."'

Tony Cannavino, head of the Canadian Police Association representing 57,000 members, isn't so sure. He wondered how Kennedy can substantiate his "usage creep" claims when RCMP Taser data have not been fully assessed. He also suggested Kennedy's recommendations are too vague and could wind up putting police officers and suspects more at risk. "If you use a baton (instead of a Taser) you're going to injure the person," he said. "How do you define 'combative?' What is 'grievous bodily harm?' That needs more explanation."

An analysis of 563 incidents by The Canadian Press found that three in four suspects Tasered by the RCMP between 2002 and 2005 were unarmed. Several reports suggest a pattern of stun-gun use as a handy tool to keep drunk or rowdy suspects in line rather than to handle major threats.

RCMP Sgt. Sylvie Tremblay, a force spokeswoman, said Wednesday the Mounties will study the report "in order to prepare a response and appropriate action."

On Tuesday, the head of the RCMP said preliminary reviews suggest training and policy are adequate. RCMP Commissioner William Elliott said a force-wide order to stop using the electronic guns could compromise the safety of both officers and the public. Elliott noted the Taser is just one method of controlling a suspect, but he made it clear he considers the stun gun a potentially valuable option. "And if that tool's not available then that in and of itself could result in a situation where the individual being apprehended, or the officer, might well be injured."

Kennedy's report also calls for:

- Recertifying officers who use Tasers every two years instead of three.

- Creation of an RCMP national "use-of-force" co-ordinator to oversee policies, techniques and equipment.

- Stricter reporting requirements to ensure complete records of Taser use.

- Quarterly and annual RCMP reports on use of the electronic guns.

Since 2000, Amnesty International Canada has called for a suspension of Taser use pending a full independent study of its effects. But spokesman Alex Neve was still pleased with much of what Kennedy recommended.

"Tightening up where the Taser fits on the use-of-force continuum is vital," he said. "We are not against use of force. And we're not necessarily against the Taser. We've said, at the very least, if governments aren't prepared to go ahead with a moratorium, they should ensure that the Taser is the second-last stop on the use-of-force continuum - that officers are only reaching for it when their next choice would be to reach for the gun."

B.C. Civil Liberties Association president Jason Gratl, who advocates a moratorium on Tasers, said the RCMP must craft a policy for at-risk groups who are more prone to be jolted by police before they continue using the devices. "The mentally ill, drug addicts, people with significant health problems are more likely to be Tasered. Those groups are at risk. And we don't know enough about how the Taser works on those groups to design a policy that keeps them safe."

B.C. Solicitor General John Les said the Kennedy report is in line with his own thinking that "Tasers are a useful addition to enforcement tools . . . but that they should be used correctly and in the right circumstances." Les said the commissioner of a public inquiry into the Dziekanski death will decide whether to use the Kennedy report in the probe that gets underway in the New Year.

Read the Executive Summary.

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