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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mounties promise to act on RCMP watchdog's call to rein in taser use

June 18, 2008
The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — The RCMP says it will heed fresh calls from its public watchdog to rein in use of Taser stun guns.

The Mounties said Wednesday they would act on recommendations from the RCMP complaints commission "as quickly as possible" to provide clearer direction to officers and further restrict firing of the 50,000-volt weapons.

The statement came shortly after commission chairman Paul Kennedy issued a final report echoing his interim call to limit Taser use to clashes where a person is combative or risks serious harm to themselves, the police or the public.

"We agree with Mr. Kennedy that the RCMP must properly instruct our members to appropriately deploy the (Taser) in an operational setting and account for our use of the weapon," the RCMP said.

"We have already implemented or begun implementation of much of what Mr. Kennedy has recommended."

In his 78-page report, Kennedy urged a tighter rein on an electronic weapon the Mounties have fired more than 4,000 times since its introduction in 2001.

"I want it boxed in, I want constraints," he told a news conference.

But he stopped short of calling for a moratorium, saying the risk of being hit with a Taser is less than being shot in the chest with a conventional gun. "No one is calling for the police to be disarmed and not use weapons," Kennedy said.

Still, he wants additional curbs that would leave Tasers in the hands of only experienced officers.

He found the national police force has failed to comprehensively track how its officers use the Taser.

Kennedy said the quality of the RCMP's own Taser report data is so poor that the force's policy changes on stun gun use over the years "cannot be factually supported" - what he calls a dangerous practice.

Kennedy also recommended immediate medical attention for people Tasered by the RCMP "in all circumstances."

"This mirrors the policy directive currently found in several municipal police forces, and in my mind ensures that individuals who are Tasered, and about whom the police have no knowledge of underlying medical conditions, receive prompt medical attention, thereby possibly saving their life," he said. "This is particularly relevant for at-risk populations, such as people with mental-health issues, substance-abuse problems, health and homelessness challenges and other marginalized groups in society."

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day asked Kennedy to study the RCMP's Taser use amid a public uproar over the stun guns last year.

In a statement Wednesday, Day said the government "accepts the report and its recommendations in principle," including further restrictions on how Tasers are used. Day added he had already met with RCMP Commissioner William Elliott to discuss the implications. "He has indicated to me that he intends to act on the recommendations in a manner that takes into consideration the operational requirements of the RCMP," Day said. "We agree on the need to move forward in ways that will help to maintain the safety of the public and the men and women that protect our communities."

In its statement, the RCMP said specific steps to adjust policies and practices in response to Kennedy's recommendations will need to "appropriately consider the diverse and geographically dispersed communities we serve" and operational needs.

The RCMP declined to elaborate Wednesday.

Kennedy's final report was initially supposed to be released last Thursday. But it was delayed so Day could discuss the findings with the complaints chairman earlier this week.

Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died in October after he was repeatedly zapped with an RCMP Taser and subdued by officers at Vancouver International Airport. A hair-raising amateur video of his wrenching final moments circled the globe, sparking public outrage and igniting fresh debate.

A Canadian Press CBC-Radio-Canada investigation of more than 3,200 incidents in which Mounties fired the powerful stun guns in the last six years shows that officers used the Taser multiple times in almost half of cases.

The pattern of repeated shocks has continued in recent years despite a 2005 RCMP directive warning numerous zaps could be hazardous.

The analysis also revealed that nearly a third of the people the RCMP has hit with Tasers needed medical treatment afterward, raising new questions about a potent weapon police consider a safer alternative to conventional guns.

The Taser can be fired from a distance of several metres and cycled repeatedly once steel probes puncture a suspect's skin or clothing. The guns can also be used in up-close stun mode - a sensation likened to leaning on a hot stove - sometimes resulting in painful blisters or burns.

Tony Cannavino, president of the Canadian Police Association, said this week officers need solid research, guidance and proper training - including recertification every two years - in order to be sure the stun guns are used properly.

Twenty people in Canada have died after they were Tasered.

Arizona-based manufacturer Taser International points out that the weapons have never been directly blamed for a death, though they have been cited as contributing factors.

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