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Thursday, May 29, 2008

RCMP Taser incidents involving two disabled men angers support group

May 29th, 2008
Canadian Press

Aeron Hall admits he’d had a few drinks before setting off on the walk home one spring night four years ago.

But Hall, who is disabled, said it was his limp and not excessive intoxication that attracted the attention of RCMP and set off a chain of events that ended with him being jolted seven times by RCMP Tasers, including once to his testicles.

Hall’s experience in Merritt, B.C., and a disturbingly similar experience by a Kamloops man have angered the head of the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities, which wants police officers better trained to recognize disabilities.

Both Hall, 35, and Gary Williams, 49, admit they had been drinking before their confrontations with RCMP officers. But both adamantly deny they were drunk.

Williams has a limp from a horrible accident as a child. He also has a chronic sleep disorder and speaks slowly and carefully.

Hall had a brain aneurysm as a child. His weak leg swings as he walks, a visible reminder of his disability.

Both men are on government disability pensions.

Hall said he was on his way home after having a couple of beers with a few friendsin June 2004 when he was confronted by a female police officer in front of the Merritt RCMP detachment. He questioned the need to get in her vehicle but said he did comply and was driven a short distance to the detachment door.

Once inside, Hall was told to remove all his clothing and jewelry but the First Nations man wouldn’t take off one necklace. He said his spiritual adviser told him never to take it off.

That’s when he said two large, male officers approached him.

“One was holding a Taser behind his back and they reached for my necklace to rip it off. I stepped back and he pulled out the Taser … and I started defending myself,” Hall said.

“They wrestled me to the ground and started Tasing me in my privates and on my back and my legs.”

Hall was released the next day from jail without charge. His doctor counted seven Taser burn marks, including three on his back, three on his legs and one on his genitals.

Hall’s mother, Norma, later received a copy of a police report that concluded the officers had done nothing wrong.

“Evidence supports the amount of force applied was consistent with training methods and standards,” wrote Staff Sgt. A.H. Clark, the officer in charge of the Merritt RCMP detachment at the time.

The letter sent to Norma Hall said that her son was “unco-operative and combative.” It supported her son’s story that he became aggressive when officers tried to remove his necklaces.

The letter further said officers were trying to touch him in the thigh area when he refused to comply with officers’ requests.

“Your son continued to fight and kick and turn on the ground, causing the Taser to contact him in multiple locations,” Clark wrote.

The letter also noted Aeron continued to fight even after being Tasered.

Williams’s encounter occurred in the summer of 2005, when police showed up at his apartment. Officers were responding to a call after he yelled at a woman in his building who didn’t hold the door open for him.

“They said ‘You’re under arrest for public intoxication,’ ” he said with a laugh. “I said ‘I’m in my apartment. How can you arrest me?’

“I was zapped on my right (side) first … and I guess because I didn’t fall down the other officer jabbed me from the other side with his (Taser).”

Williams, who has bad burn scars on his torso from a previous accident, said the third hit came at the detachment.

“I was pulling my shirt off over my head - and this is my theory, because there was absolutely no scuffle going on, no words exchanged, nothing - and I pulled the shirt off my head and exposed that large white area and I guess it looked too tempting … and bam right in the scabs,” he said.

Williams wasn’t charged with anything and didn’t complain at the time because he said he thought the abuse would only get worse.

That’s a misconception RCMP Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre wants to fix.

Lemaitre, an RCMP spokesman, said Williams needs to come forward to allow police to investigate the incident.

“If there was any impropriety we need to know, we need to deal with it now,” Lemaitre said when asked about the incident.

Lemaitre said police are trained from the start to observe if a person is intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, which includes the smell of liquor, slurred speech, lack of balance, glassy eyes.

“But the first thing that officer does is try to communicate with that person,” he said. “And you try to go through some check list.”

Unlike Williams, in Hall’s case a complaint was filed to the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, an independent body created by Parliament to investigate public complaints against RCMP.

“The result of the investigation (was the RCMP) acted within their policy guidelines and were upholding the law,” Norma Hall said.

She said her son had the right to be protected, but instead he was attacked by the very people who should have been protecting him.

“We warned him about coming downtown alone … he could get picked up again,” she said.

The stories anger Margaret Birrell, executive director of the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities.

“What is this intolerance about? Have they got nothing else to do?” she asked. “If we heard about this in another country, we’d be appalled. It’s abuse of power.”

Birrell said any number of disabilities including brain injuries, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis can give the impression someone has had too much to drink.

“Somebody has to take leadership on awareness with the police forces,” she stated. “We’ve got to have more understanding and tolerance. I mean not everybody’s an ace athlete.”

Birrell said the fact these men had a few drinks shouldn’t matter.

“They weren’t driving. They were walking.”

A public inquiry is underway in British Columbia into the general use of Tasers by law enforcement in the wake of the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver’s airport last October.

Video shot by a member of the public, showing Dziekanski dying on the airport floor, stunned the public and focused attention on the controversial shock weapons.

The first part of the inquiry by former B.C. Court of Appeal justice Thomas Braidwood is looking into medical issues and police policies surrounding the use of the Taser. A report is expected later this year. The second phase will look specifically into Dziekanski’s death, but only after a decision on possible criminal charges has been made.

Birrell said her group hadn’t planned on making a submission to the Taser inquiry but has changed its mind after hearing of the treatment of the two men by Mounties in B.C.’s Interior.

“I’m so offended,” she said.

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