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Friday, December 14, 2007

RCMP 'changes' to taser policy represents little change at all: watchdog

December 14, 2007
The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - The RCMP says it will restrict its use of Tasers after a report criticized the national police force for firing the stun guns too often, but the report's author says the "new" policy represents little change at all. The Mounties say they will more clearly define use-of-force terminology and limit Taser use to situations where "a subject is displaying combative behaviours or is being actively resistant."

RCMP bosses issued an operational bulletin outlining what they trumpeted as policy changes. They plan to include them in future Taser training. But a spokesman for the report's author says the measures are no different than what have always guided RCMP Taser use and will do little to curb what the report described as "usage creep." "We are less than happy with the (new policy) because they don't deal with the fact that we wanted to classify it as an impact weapon for combative situations," said Nelson Kalil, spokesman for the RCMP Commission of Complaints. "It's encouraging that they recognize that it's inappropriate to use in passive resistance, that's one step. But the matter of where it is on the force continuum . . . we don't think they go far enough. "We're disappointed with the (measures) because they don't follow our recommendations."

RCMP Commissioner William Elliott told a news conference Friday the changes "more clearly define the use of force terminology and make it clearer that in certain instances - including, I would say, instances where the Taser has been used in the past - it's not appropriate to use." "The reality is," he added, "that assessing situations on the ground do include a certain amount of subjectivity."

The RCMP watchdog recommended the Mounties drastically curb their increasing reliance on electronic stun guns. Paul Kennedy's 53-page report said the 50,000-volt Tasers should only be used when suspects are "combative" or pose a risk of "death or grievous bodily harm. The RCMP recognizes the need to take action on the issues raised in the report and is committed to making immediate improvements in a number of areas," Elliott said in a statement.

But police definitions of the behaviours cited in the policy announced Friday suggest little change from those Kennedy cited as problematic:

-Combative behaviour is when a person threatens force by punching, kicking, clenching fists or otherwise intends to hurt or resist arrest, or verbally or physically threatens assault. A person who physically attacks an officer or tries by other means to injure them is considered combative.

-Resistant behaviour is when, for example, a person pulls away, pushes away or runs away. A person who continues to drive away, or drives evasively after an officer has activated the police vehicle's emergency equipment is displaying resistant behaviour.

"It is important to note that a police officer's judgment plays an important role," said RCMP Sgt. Sylvie Tremblay.

Tom Engel, an Edmonton lawyer who represents Taser victims, says the policy represents no significant change. Active resistance can be as little as a suspect pulling back their hand when a police officer reaches for it, he said. "The RCMP have decided to do absolutely nothing," said Engel, chairman of the policing committee for the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association of Alberta. He said he doubts most Canadians realize just how low the threshold is for a police officer to use a Taser. "I'm sure that if the average person knew that just simply moving to avoid physical control would justify the use of the Taser, they'd probably have grave concerns," he said.

Kennedy's report was commissioned amid an international furor surrounding the case of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died Oct. 14 after he was repeatedly Tasered and pinned to the floor by RCMP officers at Vancouver International Airport.

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," Kennedy said in an interim report released Wednesday. He said 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 for sudden deaths after Tasers were used.

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. The interim report stopped short of calling for a moratorium their use. Kennedy, whose full report is due next summer, said the RCMP should consider Tasers an "impact weapon" rather than an intermediate tool such as pepper spray or a baton.

Said Kalil: "We'll continue to work with them and hope that they will see things our way." Mounties have fired 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 statistical information on Taser use in developing policy. In keeping with Kennedy's recommendations, the Mounties will enhance their Taser data base, establish more robust reporting and analysis, and file quarterly and annual reports on all use-of-force incidents, including those involving Tasers. The force will continue working with medical experts and police organizations "to examine medical, legal, and social aspects of use-of-force issues, including (Tasers), and their impact on persons suffering from excited delirium syndrome."

Some 2,800 Tasers are being used by more than 9,100 RCMP members across the country. Dziekanski is recorded as the 18th person in Canada to die in recent years after being hit by a Taser. Taser International, makers of the device, stress that the weapons have never been directly blamed for a death.

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