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Monday, April 14, 2008

Mounties release more taser data on weapons but shield details on injuries

April 14, 2008
CBC and The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - The RCMP continues to withhold crucial details of injuries to the people they stun with Tasers after coming under fire for being too secretive.

The national police force released a new batch of information Monday following a second look at what they tell Canadians about Taser use. The records contain more data on whether people hit with RCMP stun guns were carrying a weapon, and whether they had taken drugs or alcohol.

But the Mounties still refuse to release details of cuts, burns and bruises suffered by subjects in the more than 4,000 officer reports released under the Access to Information Act.

When incidents involved a mental health crisis, that was also stripped from the records.

The national police force was attacked by critics last month for deciding to stop disclosing such information.

Liberal public safety critic Ujjal Dosanjh said Monday he's "delighted" the RCMP has relented on some points but said the force is still deleting too many details that people have a right to know.

"I fail to see any rational reason for them to exclude those two items of information - mental health issues or injuries," he said. "I believe that we need to know whether or not in the continuing use of the Taser, people are being injured excessively. I think that's the core issue."

Controversy flared after a joint investigation by The Canadian Press and CBC found the Mounties were censoring key elements that must be recorded each time officers draw their electronic weapons.

RCMP Commissioner William Elliott then ordered "a further review" of the records "to determine if additional information" should be released.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day had sought and received assurances the RCMP would review the matter. The Mounties denied their hand was forced by the minister, saying they had already decided to re-examine the Taser forms.

Dosanjh said Monday the force has more work to do. "The RCMP first of all tried to withhold information, and I believe they were caught," he said. "People were rightly concerned, and they've now coughed up more information. I believe they've not gone far enough."

RCMP officers are supposed to fill out a form every time they fire - or even threaten to use - a Taser.

In a 2004 Alberta case in which a Mountie fired a stun gun, the officer noted the subject was later examined at a medical facility, one record released Monday shows. But the section of the form where a description of any injuries should be recorded is blank. The prongs fired by a Taser can cause cuts. In up-close stun mode, the weapon may burn the subject's skin. And people sometimes hit their heads when jolted by a Taser.

The electronic guns are dangerous weapons that the RCMP should have, Dosanjh said Monday. "But they should be able to only have that weapon if they're using it appropriately. And a very important way of distinguishing appropriate use from inappropriate use is whether or not a person is seriously injured."

The RCMP is also keeping secret the precise dates of incidents, revealing only the year they happened. The force has now disclosed some fragmentary information about what happened in each incident, but continues to leave out key parts of the story.

The summary of a 2003 Kamloops, B.C., case in which the RCMP stunned a person indicates only that he or she was "extremely intoxicated and combative."

In a letter accompanying the data released Monday, the RCMP said it invoked exemptions under the access law to protect the privacy of people hit with Tasers and to guard confidences about their investigations.

Insp. Troy Lightfoot, an RCMP spokesman, said last month that internal analysis of the forms concluded the painful weapons were being used correctly.

Scathing newspaper editorials and opposition critics said Canadians were being asked to blindly trust the Mounties.

Last November, a Canadian Press analysis 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.

Twenty 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.

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