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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Controls needed on SkyTaser police

April 15, 2008
Gordon Keast, Vancouver Sun

The only armed transit police force in Canada is using the stun guns on non-paying passengers trying to flee

Imagine being Tasered for not paying your fare on the SkyTrain. It's happened more than once. Documents obtained following freedom of information requests show that members of the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Police Service have indeed used Tasers to subdue non-paying passengers attempting to flee.

In one case, the "subject ran from officers during a 'fare blitz' (no proof of fare paid while in a fare paid zone.) Taser was deployed as the subject fled . . . ." Another person who had not paid the SkyTrain fare and refused to identify himself was placed under arrest. He then "grabbed onto the platform railing and refused to let go." He was told to "stop resisting arrest," and when he did not, "the Taser was deployed."

Another individual who was stopped for not having a valid fare receipt was found to have an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Once advised of that fact "the subject fled from the officers" and "the Taser was deployed . . . ."

Under the "Use of Force" policy that governs Taser use by the transit police, a Taser may be deployed when "the situation demands control over a non-compliant, suicidal, potentially violent, or violent individual and; lower force options were ineffective in controlling the individual or were inappropriate given the circumstances."

Cynics might argue that lower force options could include running after the one subject or prying loose the hands of the other. But does non-payment of a SkyTrain fare really warrant the use of a Taser?

The transit police in these summary reports do not appear to be in any danger from the non-paying passengers who are running away or holding onto railings. Nor is anyone else. There is not even any threatened violence indicated, so the use of the electro-shock device is questionable at best. Quite simply, the way the use of force policy is being interpreted appears to be exceptionally broad, and what is occurring is a case of "usage creep."

The 127 members of the Greater Vancouver Transit Authority Police are armed with handguns, and it has 20 Tasers. It has the same policing powers as the local police and represent the only armed transit police force in Canada.

Since last July, SkyTrain police have used the stun gun 10 times, including once during a visit by Gov.-Gen. Michaelle Jean to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The death of a Polish immigrant at Vancouver International Airport in October sparked intense controversy over police use of the controversial devices.

Since last fall, many police forces across Canada have launched intense reviews of Taser use, and changes have been made. In Quebec, police have been ordered to restrict their use of the electroshock weapons. They will be allowed to use a Taser only when a suspect poses a serious risk to himself, a member of the public or a police officer.

In Newfoundland, the provincial police force has suspended the use of Tasers, although the RCMP in that province still use the stun guns.

Following a report from Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, the national force now has guidelines that restrict the use of stun guns to those cases in which "a subject is displaying combative behaviour or is being actively resistant." But the use of force policy governing Taser use by the SkyTrain police remains largely unchanged. It was introduced in 2005 and revised in May, 2007. But that was before the tragedy at Vancouver International Airport and growing concern over the use of Tasers in Canada.

Maybe it's time to rethink the policy and open it up to public scrutiny.

SkyTrain carried 70 million boarded passengers in 2006. And SkyTrain police meet more people on a daily basis than your average policeman. The possibility for potential contact with people on drugs, mentally ill or in an agitated state is high.

But whether SkyTrain police who already carry firearms and pepper spray should also be armed with Tasers under the present policy is a serious question.

It could be argued that SkyTrain police need Tasers for potentially suicidal or violent passengers. But it is very difficult to make a case for using Tasers on passengers who are simply fleeing or resisting arrest for not paying their fares.

For the public to have confidence in the correct use of Tasers by the transit police we need assurance that members of the force are using these intermediate weapons only when absolutely necessary.

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