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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Vancouver transit riders tasered for not paying fares

April 16, 2008

VANCOUVER — The country's only armed transit police have been tasering passengers who try to avoid paying fares. According to documents provided in response to a Freedom of Information request, police patrolling public transit in the Metro Vancouver area have used tasers 10 times in the past 18 months, including five occasions when victims had been accosted for riding free.

In one incident, a non-paying passenger was tasered after he held onto a railing on the SkyTrain platform and refused to let go. "After several warnings to the subject to stop resisting arrest and the subject failing to comply with the officers' commands, the taser was deployed and the subject was taken into control," said the report provided by TransLink, the region's transit authority.

An internal review of the incident concluded that the action taken by transit police officers complied with the force's policy and was within guidelines "set out in the National Use of Force Model," the report said.

On another occasion, a passenger was tasered when he fled from police who found him without a payment receipt during a "fare blitz." This time, however, the passenger got away because, as recounted in the report, "the Taser was ineffective due to the subject's clothing and [he] escaped the custody of the officers."

Politicians and civil-liberties activists alike decried the use of tasers on individuals who were attempting merely to avoid paying a fine for not buying a ticket to ride. "I think it's absolutely uncalled for, absolutely reprehensible, and the police should not be doing that," federal Liberal public safety critic Ujjal Dosanjh said in Ottawa yesterday.

On the face of it, the use of tasers by transit police here is far outside guidelines that say they should be used only if someone is suicidal, violent or about to injure himself or someone else, Mr. Dosanjh said.

"Their current use is absolutely inappropriate," he said, adding that the latest revelations, coming after a storm of recent controversy over taser use by regular police forces across the country, have brought him close to calling for a moratorium on the powerful stun guns. "This is the kind of example that would lead people like me, who have so far resisted asking for a moratorium, to actually call for that," he said.

Murray Mollard of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which supports a moratorium, said he was shocked by the news of transit passengers being tasered. "To apply a taser on someone fleeing the scene while trying to evade a fine is, quite frankly, an outrageous abuse of this weapon," Mr. Mollard said. "Do we really need police officers with guns and tasers using them in the context of fare evasion? I don't think so. This really is very hard to believe." But he stopped short of blaming the police. "They do what police do," he said. Instead, he pinned the fault on cabinet ministers responsible for the police who refuse to restrict taser use.

In a move that sparked heated debate in the province, the government gave the green light for transit cops to carry weapons 2½ years ago. There are about 125 officers on the transit force. The region's popular, elevated SkyTrain system operates on a partial honour system, without turnstiles. However, riders caught without a ticket are subject to heavy fines, as high as $175. Officers ask passengers at random for proof of payment.

Yesterday, the head of the RCMP admitted the police force did not do a good job making information public about taser use, and vowed that changes will be made.

"Frankly we did not handle this matter very well," Commissioner William Elliott told the Canadian Club of Ottawa. "We should not have needed two kicks at the can. We must learn from that and do better."

The taser controversy will be in the spotlight again today - the mother of Robert Dziekanski, the Polish immigrant who died after being tasered by the RCMP last year at Vancouver International Airport, is expected to testify before a parliamentary committee in Ottawa.

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