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Friday, May 23, 2008

RCMP has new taser policy, inquiry told

May 23, 2008
Neal Hall, Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER - The RCMP has changed its Taser policy and now trains officers only to use the weapon when a person exhibits "active resistance" to arrest or police commands, a provincial Taser inquiry was told Thursday.

The RCMP's national use-of-force coordinator from Ottawa, Insp. Troy Lightfoot, told the inquiry the RCMP changed its policy from "passive resistance" to "active resistance" to adhere to recommendations about Taser use made last December by Paul Kennedy, head of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP.

Lightfoot said the RCMP has also changed the re-certification training period for Taser use to every year from every three years after the initial two-day training session that teaches officers how to deploy Tasers.

Patrick McGowan, counsel for the Thomas Braid inquiry probing the use of Tasers in B.C., asked why the RCMP didn't adopt Kennedy's recommendation that Tasers be reclassified as an impact weapon only to be used in situations where a suspect exhibits "combative behaviour."

"It's a misunderstanding of the lexicon and definition," Lightfoot replied. "I don't think we're far off."

RCMP Assistant Commissioner Al Macintyre, the officer in charge of criminal operations in B.C., began the RCMP presentation by expressing his condolences to the mother of Robert Dziekanski, the 40-year-old Polish man who was jolted twice with a Taser at Vancouver International Airport by RCMP last Oct. 14.

"The unfortunate tragic events that occurred last Oct. 14 were not what anyone would have ever wished," the senior Mountie told the inquiry. "They cannot be undone but the RCMP is determined to learn what we can from this tragedy and to make improvements for the future."

Macintyre said an investigation of the airport incident is still being conducted by members of the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, which will eventually forward a report to Crown for a decision on whether charges are warranted.

He said the RCMP looks forward to the results of the inquiry in order to make improvements to safeguard public safety.

Macintyre said Taser use by the RCMP has increased dramatically since it was first introduced in 2000, when there were 4,392 Mounties working in B.C., compared to about 6,500 now.

He suggested the increase in the number of Tasers and the number of officers trained to use the devices has caused usage to shoot up in recent years -- there were 496 Taser incidents in B.C. last year, up from 218 in 2005.

Nationally, the RCMP reported 1,119 Taser incidents in 2006 and 1,414 in 2007, compared with 597 incidents in 2005.

He told the inquiry that trainers teach that the Taser weapon is not risk-free, but nothing is taught about the possibility of causing death. He said that's because there is no medical research to prove Tasers cause death -- a controversial point frequently discussed at the inquiry by several independent medical experts.

Earlier in the day, a Montreal biomedical engineer told the inquiry that Taser jolts involving a person with heart disease increase the probability of death.

"There is a strong statistical association between Taser-related deaths and heart diseases," said Pierre Savard.

He also said the current studies on healthy people or healthy animals are insufficient to conclude that the Taser weapon is completely safe.

Savard, a professor at the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, said the placement of Taser darts within 1.6 centimetres of the heart could stimulate heart tissue and lead to ventricular fibrillation, which causes the heart to quiver, desynchronizing the pumping action of the heart chambers and causing a drop in blood pressure.

Such an occurrence requires the use of a defibrillator to get the heart to return to its normal rhythm, he said.

The Taser delivers short pulses of electrical current through electrodes over the surface of the body, causing automatic muscle contraction and incapacitation.

Savard said the electrical current is insufficient to cause heart tissue damage in a normal person, but could affect a person with heart disease and cardiac scar tissue.

He said a Taser shock causes the heart rate to jump to 137 beats per minute (72 beats is normal).

Savard said he began researching the issue after the death of Dziekanski. An amateur video of the incident, posted on the Internet, caused an international public outcry and led the B.C. government to order the inquiry.

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