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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

RCMP falls short in limiting tasers

December 18, 2007
The Toronto Star

Today's Toronto Star editorial:

The recent death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport after Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers jolted him with a Taser has sparked a welcome reassessment of how and when the high-voltage stun guns should be used.

Yet Canada's problem-plagued national police force inexplicably responded last week with only a half-measure when faced with a critical report from RCMP public complaints commission chair Paul Kennedy. The report rightly urges the RCMP to restrict Taser use to instances where suspects are "combative" or pose a risk of "death or grievous bodily harm" to police, themselves or others.

RCMP Commissioner William Elliott has announced a policy change that would limit Taser use to cases where someone "is displaying combative behaviours or is being actively resistant." That means officers can no longer use a Taser against someone who passively resists, by lying down or being otherwise unco-operative.

But according to one expert, the policy potentially could still allow a Taser to be wielded against someone who makes as unmenacing a gesture as pulling their hand away when an officer reaches for it. By that standard, it is hard to say if Dziekanski, who was unarmed and appeared to pose no immediate danger to anyone, would still have been tasered. That very uncertainty means the new threshold the RCMP has set for the use of stun guns is still too low.

Kennedy's interim report, which Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day requested after Dziekanski's death, paints a troubling picture of a trigger-happy police force that has relaxed the rules around Taser use since it first adopted the weapons in 2001.

Citing "usage creep," the report says the RCMP authorizes Taser use "earlier than reasonable" by classifying it as an "intermediate" device, in the same category as pepper spray, rather than as "an option in cases where lethal force would otherwise have been considered."

Kennedy properly resists calls for an outright moratorium on Tasers. After all, the weapons can prevent death and serious injury in situations when the only alternative available to police is drawing a gun.

But in light of Dziekanski's death and persistent questions surrounding police use of Tasers, the tighter restrictions the complaints commission has recommended seem reasonable.

The RCMP has agreed to comply with other recommendations, such as beefing up reporting on Taser use and appointing a national co-ordinator to oversee policies on the use of force. But on the critical issue of reining in Taser use, a complaints commission spokesperson was right last week to criticize the force for not going far enough.

This is not the final word on police use of Tasers. Kennedy will release his final report sometime next summer. A public inquiry into Dziekanski's death ordered by the B.C. government, as well as several other probes, may also shed light on the issue. Meanwhile, a coroner's jury into the 2004 police shooting of a mentally ill man last week recommended front-line officers in Toronto be equipped with Tasers.

Whatever the outcome of these proceedings, the complaints commission has already proposed an appropriately high bar for Taser use that should set the standard for police forces across the country. The RCMP should fall into line.

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