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Friday, December 14, 2007

Nunavut RCMP used tasers at least 25 times this year, legal aid lawyers say

December 14, 2007
CHRIS WINDEYER, Nunatsiaq News

RCMP used tasers on at least 25 Nunavut residents in the Baffin region this year, say legal aid lawyers. That's more than three times the rate of taser use reported by the Nunavut RCMP between March 2002 and March 2005, according to numbers obtained by the Canadian Press.

Christian Lyons, a lawyer with Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik in Iqaluit, estimates legal aid has dealt with "at least 25" clients from the Baffin region who were tasered, "this year alone." "In our experience it seems to be a regular occurrence."

Recent statistics on taser use by Nunavut Mounties exist, but the RCMP isn't sharing them. RCMP headquarters in Ottawa did not release information on taser use by Nunavut Mounties more recent than March 2005 to Canadian Press, which obtained the earlier figures through an access to information request. Nunavut's V Division has recent statistics on taser use, said Sgt. Mike Toohey, but they won't release these numbers, other than through an access to information request sent to Ottawa.

Tasers work in two ways. The pistol-shaped weapon can be held directly against a suspect, giving a painful jolt. Or a gas-powered charge can shoot two barbs, attached to the taser with wires, into a suspect. Both methods shoot 50,000 volts of electricity though the suspect's body, causing their muscles to seize up and sending them, usually, crashing to the ground.

Toohey said there haven't been any deaths resulting from taser use in Nunavut. As for injuries, he said he wouldn't discuss specific cases, but said people who are shot with taser barbs typically need medical attention to have them removed.

According to a report by the U.S. National Commission on Correctional Health Care, most injuries from the barbs "can be cared for in a manner similar to simple fishhook injuries." The report says most injuries resulting from taser use are scrapes and bruises resulting from falls.

Lyons said four of his clients during a recent circuit court trip to Pond Inlet reported being tasered. Like Toohey, he was hesitant to discuss specific cases, but said tasers typically get used in situations where someone is resisting arrest, especially if they try to strike a police officer.

David Qamaniq, the outgoing mayor of Pond Inlet, said he knows of two recent cases of residents being tasered. "There have been a couple of incidents in Pond Inlet where tasers had to be used and I'm not sure whether (the RCMP) had no choice but to use it or not," he said. Toohey said the use of tasers is governed by the need to use force in dealing with a suspect, beginning with verbal commands and ending, if necessary, with guns. The use of force depends on the threat to both Mounties and bystanders, he said. "If we use force we have to be able to articulate, not only in court but [within the RCMP] the force that we used was appropriate," he said.

Tasers were adopted by the RCMP as an alternative to guns. But the RCMP's public complaints commission notes in its most recent annual report the stun guns are at times used as a replacement for pepper spray and batons to subdue people considered "combative" or "resistant."

An interim report by the commission, released Wednesday, recommends tougher rules governing the use of tasers, so that the weapons would only be used by RCMP if someone is "combative" or posing the risk of "death or grievous bodily harm" to police, themselves or the public.

Lyons is quick to point out he doesn't think Mounties in Nunavut are trying to hide anything. He simply wants to see greater public scrutiny of taser use. He also agrees police are sometimes justified in using the weapons. "Some [clients] have it coming, some of them, it's a bit excessive, but I wasn't there," he said. "The clients were expressing concern it wasn't entirely necessary. There's always two sides to the story, but I take their concerns seriously."

Use of the tasers has come under scrutiny since early November when Robert Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant who became involved in a standoff with authorities at the Vancouver airport that was caught on videotape, died after being hit twice with a taser.

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