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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Vancouver police taser manual isn't specific on who deserves shock, inquiry hears

May 8, 2008
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — A Vancouver police officer gets eight hours of training before being issued a Taser and the manual they use makes no distinction between people who are holding a passive protest and those resisting arrest.

Const. Tammy Hammell, the Vancouver Police Department's electronic control device co-ordinator, testified at a public inquiry into the use of Tasers on Thursday that officers are told they are allowed to use the weapon if someone is "actively resisting," such as holding on to a bar and refusing to be handcuffed.

Officers aren't allowed to use the Taser on so-called passive resisters, such as protesters sitting in the middle of a roadway. But Hammell admitted under questioning from a commission lawyer that the weapon's manual doesn't spell out to police officers the difference between active and passive resistance.

The training also doesn't warn officers to try to keep the probes that deliver the electrical shock away from the heart muscle. "We don't train them that this is something that is going to hurt somebody," she said.

The force does tell officers not to use the weapons on someone who is visibly pregnant or on a balcony because they could fall over. Hammell said the Vancouver Police Department has changed its policies as safety issues arose. "We've done some field training ourselves and, as a result of that, changed our pepper spray," Hammell explained. "We decided to conduct a test (to see), if you married the Taser up with the pepper spray what would happen and it was flammable."

Not every Vancouver police officer who wants to carry a Taser is allowed. Hammell said an officer can only be issued one of the shock weapons if their sergeant recommends them. The officer has to have demonstrated the ability to use good judgment in the field. Officers are no longer able to test the device on each other because workers compensation rules prohibit it and people were being hurt," she added.

Vancouver police training officer Sgt. Clive Mulligan told the inquiry Thursday that any officer found using excessive force is dealt with quickly, citing two officers who were fired after three people were taken to a remote area of Stanley Park and beaten in January 2003.

But he questioned how much risk the public believes an officer should take before they use their weapons. "Should an officer ... be subjected to hammer-fist strikes to the nose, elbows, to the stomach, kicks to the groin when arresting somebody to take them before a court?" He said police officers know there are risks but they can mitigate those by using tools such as the Taser.

Mulligan showed the inquiry a video where two average-sized Washington State police officers easily handled a 340-pound man who refused to be handcuffed. In the video, the writhing man screams in pain and tells officers he'll co-operate as he is shocked twice. "I'm sorry man," the suspect said. "I'll do anything you want." The suspect later told the officers he had never felt such pain. "I've been shot. I've been stabbed. That hurts."

But Mulligan said it's not the Taser that is saving lives, but police officers. "Whether it's a tool Taser, a tool baton, tool firearm, or pure contact in the verbal arena, cops are the ones out there making those decisions ... and making everyone safer for it," he told the inquiry.

He mused that the manufacturer of the weapon, Taser International, probably wouldn't like to hear that assessment.

Commission lawyer Art Vertlieb asked if Vancouver's current policy allows someone in handcuffs to be shocked with a Taser. "Yes, it does. And again this is often a contentious issue," Mulligan replied. He said a person can be considered a threat, even with handcuffs on, and in training exercises restrained individuals have still been able to disarm and assault other officers. "It's not over until the cell door is closed," Mulligan said.

The inquiry was called shortly after Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died at Vancouver International Airport last October. RCMP officers twice hit Dziekanski with a Taser in the minutes before his death. Four officers had been summoned to the arrivals area to respond to an agitated Dziekanski, who had tossed some airport computer equipment and was acting unpredictably. The first phase of the inquiry will examine general police use and medical aspects of the electrical shock weapons and the second phase will look specifically at Dziekanski's death.

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