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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

In the line of fire

April 22, 2008
Keith Vass - Victoria News

Tasers often used on non-assaultive, unarmed subjects, but that’s as it should be, say police

A man is fighting with police, kicking at them, locking his legs with theirs and refusing to let go. Another is armed with a knife, threatening passers-by. One, wanted for dangerous driving and already being held on the ground by police, refuses to bring his arms out from underneath his body. All had their confrontation with Victoria police brought to an end by a Taser.

Drawn from Victoria Police Department use-of-force reports accessed through Freedom of Information legislation, the three cases present a small sample of the 48 times officers drew their Tasers in 2007.

Some contain more detail than others on what led police to deploy the Taser. “Aggressive; tensed up, clenched fists” is all one says.

Others are harrowing. In one case, a man arrested the night before by heavily-armed tactical officers who seized two guns, barricaded himself in an apartment after being released. After he challenged police to “take him on,” smashed furniture and threatened to leap from a seventh-storey window, an officer Tasered him when he turned his back.

As controversy around the weapon mounts, a B.C. inquiry into police Taser use prepares to hear submissions while other agencies face allegations of “usage creep.”

To understand how and why Victoria police are using the weapon, the News reviewed 183 use-of-force reports from 2005 through to the end of 2007. We requested every incident where police drew the Taser to threaten its use or delivered its 50,000-volt, 2.1-milliampere jolt in either the pain-compliance based ‘push-stun’ mode or by firing the weapons barbed probes to disrupt muscle control.

In an interview, Const. Mike Massine, the VPD’s Taser trainer and co-ordinator explained how they train officers to use the weapon, when each of its three modes of use is appropriate and where the device fits in the range of force options.

Whether the reports released represent every Taser use by the force is unclear. We received 69 for 2005, 66 for 2006 and 48 from last year. But statistics from the Police Services Division of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General show the Victoria police reported 79 Taser deployments to the ministry in 2005 and 59 in 2006 (numbers for 2007 are not yet available). A government spokeswoman said the discrepancy is being investigated.

And while the recent figures suggest Taser use has become more restrained, the government numbers show Taser usage by Victoria police was less common before 2005. In 2004, the ministry recorded 20 deployments, nine in 2003, 33 in 2002, 16 in 2001 and 32 in 2000.

In a detailed look at the 48 available reports from 2007, 24 Tasered subjects – half of the total – were deemed actively resisting but were not assaultive. Seven of those cases saw the Taser used in push-stun, 14 in probe deployment, five cases saw both modes used and in one case the weapon was only shown.

In 21 cases, police recorded the subject was assaultive, though only one presented a perceived threat of serious injury or death.

Six people either had a weapon in hand or had one within reach, while in another case police had received a report a man had a knife though it proved false. It was used five times to control somebody threatening suicide or self-harm.

In 28 cases, police were also in hand-to-hand scuffles with the subject, though the reports don’t always indicate which came first, the struggle or the shock. Six times another police weapon was used; three of those were pepper spray, two were shotgun fired impact rounds and one a steel baton.

Nine times police used the push-stun mode to get someone already under police restraint to produce their arms for handcuffing.

Across all three years, push-stun was used in 54 per cent of all Victoria Taser incidents, sometimes after the probes had also been fired.

Not one of the 183 reports records serious injuries requiring hospital care resulting from the Taser, though some needed treatment for puncture wounds from the device’s probes or cuts and abrasions.

Use of the Taser on non-assaultive, unarmed subjects has placed the RCMP under fire from the force’s public complaints chair, federal politicians and civil liberties groups, alleging Mounties are using the stun gun at a lower threshold than intended.

But Massine insists police have never viewed the weapon only as a replacement for deadly force, nor is there an obligation to start at a low level of force and work higher.

In policy and training, Victoria officers are told the Taser is an option at the level of “active” resistance, but doesn’t have to reach “assaultive.”

Active resistance, as police use the term, includes refusing verbal commands, pulling away, tensing muscles and ‘turtling,’ pinning arms under the body to prevent handcuffing -- anything that would hinder police making an arrest.

“The bottom line is, in any situation where there’s a level of resistance there’s a potential for extreme violence,” said Massine, adding police have to read often subtle cues to gauge if someone is about to become assaultive.

Rather than match resistance with an equal level of force, police are trained to go one step higher, Massine said, to bring the situation under control quickly. “The longer these things go on, the more likely subjects and officers and bystanders are to get injured,” he said.

B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director Murray Mollard stood by the group’s call for a moratorium on all stun gun use based on safety concerns and noted a United Nations committee in November said Taser use could be seen as a form of torture.

The use of push-stun to achieve pain compliance is a growing worry. “No one has really examined the degree of pain this imposes on individuals,” he said.

But Massine counters that the Taser in push-stun is actually a lesser force option than other weapons. The effects of a Taser jolt end the moment the current stops flowing. “As soon as I turn it off, it’s gone, it’s done,” he said.

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