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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Transit police's taser use left to officers' discretion, force says

April 19, 2008
David Hogben, Vancouver Sun

Greater Vancouver's transit police, under fire for Tasering so-called "non-compliant" passengers, said Friday the department's policy for Taser use is very broad and leaves a lot to individual officers' discretion.

Insp. Bob Huston made the statement in a news conference on the sidewalk outside transit police headquarters in New Westminster. He had been asked whether allowing Tasers to be used against anyone who is "non-compliant" is a pretty broad policy.

"Yes," Huston responded. "We depend upon the judgment of our officers to deploy the Tasers properly."

Huston spent 20 minutes vociferously defending the use of Tasers. "If we didn't fully believe that Tasers save lives, reduce and prevent injuries and are effective we wouldn't use them," he said, reading from a written text.

The latest controversy over Taser use erupted this week after an article on The Vancouver Sun's editorial pages revealed the TransLink police -- Canada's only armed transit police force -- has used Tasers at least 10 times since last July.

The department's own records state that in four of those cases, the electro-shock device was used against non-violent, non-threatening passengers. In three of the incidents, the passengers Tasered were being investigated for possible fare evasion.

The use of Tasers by law enforcement officers created an international black eye for Canada last October when Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died after being Tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver International Airport.

Despite recent controversy over whether Tasers represent too great a danger to be used against "non-compliant" fare evaders, Huston maintained there is sufficient medical evidence to support their use.

He could not cite independent studies to support his case.

"All I can tell you is I believe, our department believes, that the Taser is a safe and effective tool."

Huston acknowledged he was not aware of any Taser testing done on subjects with medical problems such as heart disease. "I know there has been studies done in relation to animals," he said. "I am not aware of any specific studies in relation to people with heart problems."

Meanwhile, the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association re-entered the Taser debate Friday. Despite the association's earlier support for the use of Tasers as an alternative to lethal force, it said in a news release the device should be used only in extreme situations.

The association recommended that:

- "Rigorous, independent research into the effect of Tasers on vulnerable persons" be conducted, especially those suffering from mental illness, psychosis or heart problems.

- Police use-of-force policies "should be changed to place Tasers as a last choice before lethal force."

- A separate use-of-force policy be developed "for individuals apparently suffering from a psychiatric crisis."

Solicitor-general John van Dongen could not be reached for comment Friday.

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