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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Nova Scotia police say taser increase reflects rise in violent incidents

March 5, 2008
Charles Mandel, Canwest News Service

HALIFAX - Police in Nova Scotia are quicker than ever to use Tasers, says a new report released by the provincial Justice Department on Wednesday. But the RCMP says the frequency of use is directly related to an increase in the number of violent incidents that police are responding to, and that the weapon is being used appropriately.

The report found Taser use in Nova Scotia has increased substantially, but standards around the weapon's use and training with it vary widely across provincial police forces.

The application of the weapon rose over the past three years, to 182 times in 2007 from 101 times in 2005, an 80 per cent increase. The hike could be attributed to an overall increase in the number of conducted energy weapons currently in use, the report said.

Although the 42-page report endorsed Tasers as a "promising 'less-lethal' weapon" that allows police to subdue violent attackers, it said several aspects of the weapon need further review. The report noted that the Taser's advantages include its rapid impact, use from a distance, potential for reducing injuries to officers, subjects and bystanders and "its reportedly short duration of physiological impact."

The reported also noted: "But these are the very characteristics that may render the CED (Conducted Energy Device) open to misuse or even abuse, particularly over-reliance on the weapon to subdue subjects when less intrusive means could be effective."

Among the report's recommendations are that the adequacy of current training programs be examined; whether operational procedures clearly outlining Taser use should exist and to what extent the government should be involved in establishing such procedures; and whether current accountability measures are adequate.

Police officials defended the use of the conducted energy weapon. "We feel it's being used when it should be used and at the appropriate time," said Halifax RCMP spokesman Sgt. Mark Gallagher. Gallagher said an increase in the number of violent incidents explains the rise in Taser use by the RCMP provincially - of 55 incidents in 2007, 25 involved armed individuals. Twenty-two of the Taser applications "defused" the situation, Gallagher said. "That could have gone another way had we not had the Taser, so there's certainly a place and a time for it."

Halifax police Chief Frank Beazley said the report's findings that Halifax Regional Police receive less training than provincial RCMP on the use of the device is a misunderstanding. He said his officers receive eight hours of training, while the RCMP's 16 hours of training include other aspects such as the use of pepper spray and first aid. "They do not train for two days just on the Taser."

In Nova Scotia, two people have died after being hit with Taser fire. In 2005, Paul Saulnier died shortly after being stunned, clubbed and pepper-sprayed by police. But it was the death of the second man, 45-year-old Howard Hyde, that prompted Nova Scotia to launch the review into Taser use. Hyde died in a Dartmouth prison last November more than a day after he was shocked with a Taser.

Both men suffered from schizophrenia, and Stephen Ayer of the Nova Scotia Schizophrenia Society criticized the Taser report as ignoring mental health issues.

The Nova Scotia Taser review is one of at least seven probes in Canada over the use of the weapon. Several of the probes are into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died after RCMP officers first applied a Taser and then subdued him in December at Vancouver International Airport.

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Cecil Clarke said in the vast majority of cases the use of the Taser has been "a very good thing," with some "unfortunate" exceptions. But Liberal justice critic Michel Samson said the report shows "unacceptable" inconsistencies in the training police receive in Taser use.

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