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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

RCMP defends censoring of taser reports as critics slam secrecy

March 26, 2008
The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — The RCMP fended off increasing attacks Wednesday, blaming federal information and privacy laws for its move to strip public Taser reports of crucial details.

Sgt. Sylvie Tremblay says the Mounties released "all the information that could be provided" under the Access to Information Act when it disclosed newly reclassified and heavily censored records last week.

"The RCMP is committed to respecting the public's right to know while upholding the law and protecting the privacy rights of individuals," Tremblay said in an interview. "Requesters may challenge the RCMP's application of various exemptions . . . should they be dissatisfied with the processing of their request."

Critics say that's a lame excuse for shielding details - including whether zapped suspects were armed or injured - that were once routinely disclosed.

A joint investigation by The Canadian Press and CBC found the Mounties are now censoring key elements that must be recorded each time officers draw their electronic weapons. As a result, Canadians know much less about who is being hit with the contentious 50,000-volt guns and under what circumstances.

Advocates of more openness point out the names and addresses of Tasered people are already struck from the forms, making further deletions unnecessary. "The leadership of the RCMP appears to have a tin ear for what the public wants in relation to Taser use," says Frank Addario, president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association. "It seems obvious that the public wants transparency in relation to the training and circumstances in which this . . . device is used, limitations on its use after any apparent threat to public or officer safety is managed and, above all, thorough training of police officers in advance of using these devices."

Another RCMP spokesman, Troy Lightfoot, has said internal analysis of Taser reports concluded the painful weapons were being used correctly.

Newspaper editorials and opposition critics and newspaper editorials say that amounts to a "just-trust-us" approach.

Opposition MPs on an all-party Commons committee studying Tasers say the force must be held to account. "I think the RCMP, by doing this, is losing a lot of credibility on the way they handle the Taser," says Bloc Quebecois MP Serge Menard. "It makes us more suspicious. One thing is for sure, we're going to examine the documents that you've got, and we'll see if we can get some more ourselves."

The Mounties say they correctly withheld information on the forms under provisions of the information law related to personal privacy and police investigations. Tremblay had no comment when asked if the RCMP broke the law by previously releasing details that it now insists must be protected.

A Canadian Press analysis last November of 563 cases between 2002 and 2005 found three in four suspects Tasered by the RCMP were unarmed.

Several of those reports suggested a pattern of stun-gun use as a convenient means of keeping drunk or rowdy people in line, rather than to defuse major clashes.

Addario says it's time for Stockwell Day, the federal minister responsible for the Mounties, to step in. "I think the minister's passive attitude toward the RCMP has to end. He needs to take ownership of this problem, take charge of the RCMP's behaviour and step up the scrutiny of the force - not only in this area, but in all the areas they've been found to be lacking in the last several years." Day was travelling in the Middle East and unavailable for comment.

Nineteen people in Canada have died soon after being Tasered. Manufacturer Taser International stresses that its device has never been directly blamed for a death, although it has been cited as a contributing factor in several cases.

Amnesty International is among observers who've called for a suspension of Taser use pending an independent, comprehensive study of risks and benefits. The weapon is hugely popular with police who say it's a much safer and efficient alternative to the baton, pepper spray and gun.

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