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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Police told to focus on 'talking skills' - Taser Inquiry; 'Usage creep' against mentally ill

May 8, 2008
Suzanne Fournier, Canwest News Service

VANCOUVER - Members of the Canadian Mental Health Association told an inquiry into the use of Tasers yesterday that they want police to de-emphasize the use of the devices and learn some "talking skills."

Dr. Nancy Hall and Bev Gutray of the CMHA pointed out there are about 130,000 people in British Columbia with severe addictions and mental illnesses -- and about 60% access health care directly from a hospital, through an emergency ward or in a crisis-driven situation. Thirty per cent of them are brought to hospital by police.

The Vancouver police department's own report this year found that 31% of police incidents involved a person believed to be affected by mental illness. The mental-health advocates had a number of recommendations for British Columbia's Braidwood inquiry, which was in its third day yesterday. They want a core of "first-call" crisis-response police officers available at all times, a comprehensive 40-hour training program for any first-responders who deal with the mentally ill, and more transparency and data on the use of the Taser.

Dr. Hall and Ms. Gutray said they initially supported the use of the Taser in de-escalating crises involving the mentally ill, but they are now concerned about "usage creep" and the lack of knowledge about the connection of Tasers to serious injury or death.

The inquiry was called by the B. C. government after Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died after being stunned with a Taser by RCMP officials in the arrivals lounge of Vancouver International Airport.

On Tuesday, the inquiry heard from Cathy Gallagher, whose brilliant but troubled son has remained in hospital since he was stunned with a Taser on Feb. 24. Ms. Gallagher held up a red T-shirt with a hole near the heart where her son Christopher, 37, was hit by a Taser after seven Vancouver police officers broke into his Vancouver home and told him to drop face down to the floor. Ms. Gallagher said she had to obtain her information from police reports because her son is too terrified to talk. The Gallaghers, who demanded a moratorium on Taser use, said Chris's condition has deteriorated to the point he can't leave hospital and live on his own.

Former B. C. Supreme Court judge Thomas Braidwood will also conduct a "hearing and study commission" into Mr. Dziekanski's Oct. 14, 2007, death. That probe will begin after the RCMP has finished its own investigation, most likely in early fall.

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