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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Vancouver's TransLink (Skytrain) police to get civilian board after Taser revelations

April 17, 2008
David Hogben, Canwest News Service

VANCOUVER - The TransLink police force - the only armed transit police force in Canada - will have a majority of civilians appointed to its board of directors as early as this summer, a provincial government official said Wednesday. The force's board of directors now has a majority of senior police officers on it, which has been adding to concerns about the force's use of Tasers on SkyTrain passengers.

The province had planned eventually to put a civilian majority on the police board, said Kevin Begg, an assistant deputy minister in the solicitor general's ministry. We have always had the intention that once we get it up and running, that we would shift it to a civilian-based board," Begg said.

The TransLink police - officially called the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Police - were given full policing powers at the end of 2005.

Begg said he expects civilians will dominate the board by June 30, when two civilians are added and one senior police officer is removed. He said the strong police presence on the board was needed to deal with the multiple jurisdictions through which SkyTrain and other TransLink lines pass.

In the meantime, it is the only police board in B.C. dominated by police officers, and critics say that makes the TransLink police less accountable than other provincially regulated police forces. "It's been a problem and it's inappropriate," said B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director Murray Mollard. "You want police to be open and transparent and you want police boards to make sure that they are," he said. Mollard's comments came after it was revealed in a Vancouver Sun column that TransLink police have Tasered SkyTrain passengers on at least 10 occasions since last July.

In four documented incidents, the electro-shock weapon was used against non-violent individuals, primarily those suspected of not paying fares. Those revelations prompted former B.C. Court of Appeal justice Thomas Braidwood to include the transit police in one of the two inquiries on the use of Tasers the province has asked him to conduct.

Three of the five members of the TransLink police board are high-ranking police officers. The fourth is TransLink chief operating officer Ian Jarvis and the fifth is businessman Baj Puri.

B.C. police board directors are usually community and provincially appointed representatives, with the mayor of the municipality serving as chair.

TransLink and its police force have refused all requests for interviews on the Taser issue, except for a four-sentence statement issued early Wednesday, the day after numerous interview requests were refused. The statement by Sgt. Willie Merenick of the TransLink police said: "The GVTA Police Service is like any other police service, with its police officers trained in the various levels of Use of Force, meeting the National Use of Force Standards. The GVTA Police Service has been provided various tools to assist in the execution of their duties, with the Tasers being one. All tools are used with safety in mind, for the public and the police officers. The province is looking at the use of Tasers and the GVTA Police Service will be advised of the findings."

There was no attempt to explain why TransLink police felt it necessary to use the controversial weapon against non-violent fare-evaders who apparently posed no threat to the public or officers.

The use of Tasers by police has been controversial since Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died at Vancouver International Airport last October after being Tasered by RCMP officers.

New Democratic Party critic Mike Farnworth said TransLink police need supervision by a civilian board, like other police boards. "The public oversight model ensures that public interest is paramount," he said.

Bruce Brown, deputy police complaint commissioner, said complaints about the TransLink police are handled the same way as those about municipal police forces. "We have received no complaints from anyone concerning the use of Tasers by (TransLink) officers," he added.

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