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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tasers used too often, senior official says

May 8, 2008
Suzanne Fournier, The Province

Mental-health advocates are calling for a "carefully selected first-call crisis response" core of police officers who can respond 24/7 to mental-health crisis calls.

A medical doctor, a police liaison lawyer and the executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association all told the Braidwood inquiry into Taser use yesterday that police need to be trained in the use of "non-threatening, de-escalation techniques" instead of resorting to impact weapons, including the Taser.

CMHA consultant Dr. Nancy Hall told the inquiry that police "command and control" tactics seldom work with mental-health crises "and can potentially cause more harm than good."

Hall said police need to be trained in verbal skills and other techniques already in common use in prisons, social-work settings, hospitals and psychiatric hospitals.

She noted that a recent B.C. study by the CMHA found that 60 per cent of those in a mental-health crisis get treatment through a hospital emergency ward, and 30 per cent of those people are taken there by police.

The CMHA estimates there are 130,000 people in B.C. that fit the medical diagnosis of having severe addiction or mental illness that is both serious and persistent, a condition called SAMI in medical texts.

Yet police mental-health training at the Justice Institute of B.C. is typically just one three-hour class in six months on how to intervene with people with mental problems, said Hall, calling for at least a 40-hour integrated training program.

Hall and CMHA police liaison Camia Webster also criticized the increasing use of Tasers in lower-risk situations.

Kevin Begg, an assistant deputy minister in the Solicitor-General's Ministry and a former police officer, said Tasers are being used too often, adding that a record should be kept of their use.

"I am very concerned about slippage in Taser use, where it is being increasingly used in lower-risk circumstances," he said. "We believe an appropriate threshold for its use must be established."

Retired judge Tom Braidwood is inquiring into Taser use by police, sheriffs and corrections officers.

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