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Monday, March 24, 2008

Use of RCMP tasers rises dramatically, records show

March 24, 2008
CBC News

The number of incidents involving RCMP stun guns has more than doubled since 2005, according to records obtained by CBC News.

Statistics prepared by RCMP officers on the use of stun guns, or Tasers, show Mounties across the country drew or threatened to draw their Tasers more than 1,400 times last year — a dramatic rise in incidents, compared with 597 in 2005.

The spike was greatest in jurisdictions such as British Columbia, where the number of Taser incidents rose from 218 in 2005 to 496 in 2007, and in Alberta, where it grew from 89 to 371 over the same period.

But while reliance on stun guns has increased sharply since the force began using them in 2001, documents obtained under the federal Access to Information Act indicate that record-keeping about Taser incidents has either become less comprehensive or that the RCMP is unwilling to share all the details of the cases with the public.

More than 2,800 Tasers are in use across the country by the 9,100-plus RCMP officers trained to use them. The RCMP forms that are supposed to be filled out every time an officer even threatens to use a Taser formerly included details such as whether the person encountered by police was armed or suffering from a mental illness. That data that was previously disclosed under the Access to Information Act in RCMP Taser reports from 2002 to 2005.

But records recently released to the CBC and the Canadian Press have been stripped of this information, as well as the precise date of each incident, actions taken by the officer before resorting to the Taser, and whether the stun gun caused any injuries — leading some to criticize the RCMP for a lack of transparency.

"The RCMP is a public police force. They are accountable to Canadians," Liberal public safety critic Ujjal Dosanjh told CBC News. "They have to be on the up and up, they have to be transparent, they have to be accountable. They have to provide that information so that people can judge for themselves whether or not their police force is acting appropriately."

"The more I look at how [the RCMP] function, the more I see the lack of transparency and lack of accountability. I am flabbergasted," said Dosanjh, who was the attorney general in B.C. when Tasers were introduced there.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day was travelling in the Middle East and wasn't immediately available for comment.

RCMP spokesperson Insp. Troy Lightfoot declined to comment on the missing information, while officials in the RCMP access to information office say the incident reports were censored to protect the privacy of people who were stunned with the Tasers.

The head of the Commission for Complaints Against the RCMP, Paul Kennedy, said the RCMP is contradicting itself by not providing the additional information at the same time that it seeks to assure the public that police are being responsive to concerns about Tasers.

"A more mature response, I think, would be one where they would make their best effort to make as much information available as possible," he said.

Vancouver airport Taser incident was a watershed moment

Kennedy said the death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport last October was a watershed moment for public interest in police use of the Taser.

The electric shock weapons — which unleash 50,000 volts of electricity and are designed to incapacitate a person — have come under intense international scrutiny since Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant, died shortly after RCMP officers repeatedly shocked him with a Taser and pinned him down in the airport's arrivals area.

Statistics from the human rights organization Amnesty International indicate there have been 19 Taser-related deaths in Canada since 2001. While "excited delirium" — a heart-pounding state of agitation — has been cited as one possible cause of death following a Taser shock, Amnesty International has repeatedly called for a moratorium on Taser use pending an independent, comprehensive study of their effects.

An analysis of 563 incidents by the Canadian Press last year found that three in four suspects shot with a Taser by the RCMP between 2002 and 2005 were unarmed.

In an interim report released last December, the Commission for Complaints Against the RCMP criticized the force for allowing the use of Tasers to grow over the past six years. Authored by Kennedy, it noted that 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."

The House of Commons public safety committee is also studying the growing use of stun guns in Canada. It will hear testimony from RCMP officers, customs officials and airport workers before drafting a report to Parliament.

Arizona-based manufacturer Taser International Inc. argues that the device has never been directly blamed for a death, though it acknowledges it has been cited repeatedly as a contributing factor.

For their part, Canadian police say Tasers have saved 4,000 lives since police forces started using them.

The RCMP's Lightfoot, who is part of an internal group analyzing police use of Tasers, said the majority of cases he's studied have shown Tasers were used appropriately.

"It is an appropriate device for law-enforcement use, and it does enhance police and public safety," he said. "And it is one of the least injurious means that we have available to take people into police custody."

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