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Monday, May 19, 2008

RCMP use of tasers has more than doubled in past two years

May 19, 2008
Marianne White, Canwest News Service

While the RCMP is on the hot seat at the inquiry probing the use of Tasers in British Columbia following the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, documents from the Mounties show their use of stun guns has more than doubled across Canada between 2005 and 2007.

According to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act by Canwest News Service, the overall use of Tasers by the RCMP soared to 1,119 incidents in 2006 and 1,414 in 2007, compared to only 597 incidents in 2005.

The majority of the incidents took place in western Canada where the force does a lot of front-line policing -- Quebec and Ontario have their own provincial forces.

About a third of the RCMP use of Tasers occurred in B.C., the province where Mounties deployed their 50,000-volt weapon the most. The use of Tasers in B.C. jumped from 218 incidents in 2005, to 406 in 2006 and a high of 496 in 2007.

When you look at the use of Tasers per capita, B.C. still comes first in the country with 11.26 incidents per 100,000 people. P.E.I. comes second with 11.18 incidents per 100,000 people, followed closely by Manitoba at 10.83, New Brunswick at 10.78, Saskatchewan at 10.76 and Alberta at 10.64.

Former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh, now a Liberal MP and public-safety critic who is sitting on a parliamentary committee examining stun gun use in Canada, said he is deeply worried by this dramatic increase in his province as well as everywhere else in the country.

"What we see is that the Taser is now being used as a substitute for the good-old traditional talking by police, or the baton or pepper spray," said Mr. Dosanjh.

The RCMP have been under fire for months over the death of Mr. Dziekanski who received multiple electrical jolts from Mounties stun guns at the Vancouver airport last year. An amateur video of the incident showing the 40-year old writhing on the floor provoked an international outcry.

The national force was also criticized last week at a B.C. inquiry into the use of Tasers for being trigger-happy and using the stun gun as a compliance tool.

Mr. Dziekanski's mother, Zofia Cisowski, told the inquiry she holds the RCMP responsible for her son's death. "I know my son would not die if he was not Tasered," she said during a short, but very emotional, testimony.

As questions are mounting about the safety and effectiveness of the stun guns, a review of the Taser incident reports shows the RCMP falls short of providing answers to those who criticize its use of the controversial weapon.

Officers are required to fill out a form every time they fire or draw a Taser. In the more than 4,000 reports filed since the Taser was introduced in 2001, the RCMP blacked out the injuries suffered by stun-gunned suspects as well as the summary of events that could have shed some light on how and why the officers use the Tasers.

Some summaries are totally blank, while others give very little information such as "members responded to call" or simply "intoxicated."

The police force cites the need to protect privacy to explain why it removed basic details from its reports. "We have to strike a balance between the individual rights to privacy and releasing information. If we release information about a person that has been Tasered in a small community, maybe someone will come out and say ‘Hey, I know that person'. So that's where we are getting into difficulties," said RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Nathalie Deschenes.

In the incidents reports obtained by Canwest, the RCMP also censored the injuries suffered by people, if the incident involved a mental health crisis and what police tried before resorting to the stun gun.

The reports did show that more than half of the suspects were under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they were Tasered and that they were not armed.

The RCMP defended the stun gun that is often seen as the best option to neutralize a threat without having to draw guns. "There are no cookie-cutter scenarios where the Taser will be used or not. It's not because a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs that he or she will be Tasered, it all depends on the circumstances," said Sgt. Deschenes.

Mr. Dosanjh, who testified at the B.C. inquiry last week, said there should be stricter guidelines about when police can deploy Tasers. "The use of Tasers has gone up in the last few years partly because the forces feel freer to use them under circumstances where they are not needed," Mr. Dosanjh said.

The RCMP said they don't plan to divulge more details of the incidents reports, such as what the officer did before resorting to the Taser.

The RCMP have some 2,800 Tasers and more than 9,000 officers are trained to use it.

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