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Thursday, June 19, 2008

In BC: Only West Vancouver police meet suggested rules for tasering suspects

June 19, 2008
Neal Hall, Vancouver Sun

Only one police agency in B.C. is already using stun guns in the way Canada's federal police watchdog recommended Wednesday -- firing them only when suspects are being "combative."

The Vancouver Sun analysed Taser policies for all municipal police departments in the province, and it appears only West Vancouver has told its officers to restrict firing a Taser to when "an individual is behaving in a combative manner or posing a risk of death or grievous bodily harm to the police or public."

Since a Polish immigrant was Tasered and died at Vancouver airport last year, the RCMP and a number of Lower Mainland police departments have rewritten their policies for use of the weapon.

All the agencies, with the exception of West Vancouver, have reserved the right of officers to use stun guns on people displaying active resistance -- a broad definition that is open to the discretion of individual officers.

It doesn't appear to meet the standards suggested in a report released Wednesday by Paul Kennedy, chairman of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP.

Nor does it address Kennedy's interim report last year, following Robert Dziekanski's death at the airport, that the RCMP use a Taser only when a target is "combative" or poses a risk of "death or grievous bodily harm."

The policies of Delta, Abbotsford, Vancouver, and Nelson police departments, for example, vary widely, but allow Taser use on people displaying active resistance or when they are non-compliant or when it is deemed appropriate by the officer.

As of May 21, Port Moody had only a draft Taser policy, but no finalized version, even though its members use the stun guns.

In response to Kennedy's interim report, the RCMP issued an operation manual bulletin instructing officers to marginally raise the bar for Taser use from "passive" to "active" resistance.

Robert Gordon, director of the criminology department at Simon Fraser University, said Tasers were initially to be used as a last resort before firing a gun, specifically for combative scenarios.

Their use is inappropriate in less severe situations, argues Gordon, a former police officer.

Gordon said a combative situation could involve, for example, an irrational and threatening mentally ill person who is armed.

Active resistance, he said, encompasses a broad range of actions by an accused during which an officer's well-being might be threatened, but not nearly to the level it is in a combative situation.

Passive resistance, he said, could include someone refusing to leave a police car by hanging on to the back seat.

On Dec. 27, following Kennedy's interim report, West Vancouver police Chief Kash Heed issued a memo to officers, which was obtained by The Vancouver Sun.

The memo said, in part: "There is a lot of public discussion on the use of Tasers. ... There will be a province-wide review of the current policies. ... Until this is completed and recommendations are put forward, the WVPD will restrict the use of Tasers to situations where an individual is behaving in a combative manner or posing a risk of death or grievous bodily harm to the police or public."

Metro Vancouver's transit police force also recently announced it had changed its controversial Taser use policy to "actively resistant," replacing the term "non-compliant."

The old policy, in effect since 2005, caused a public outcry after it was learned through a Freedom of Information request filed by Surrey resident Gordon Keast that transit police had deployed a Taser on non-violent passengers, including a person who had not paid his fare and tried to run away from an officer.

Keast said police boards of the 11 municipal forces in B.C. have set their own policies, training and Taser-use reporting requirements, resulting in a "patchwork" of different rules.

B.C.'s solicitor-general sent a letter to police chiefs last December saying there needed to be a "higher threshold" for the use of Tasers and called for a steering group "to clarify practices and policies" among police in B.C.

A ministry representative said Wednesday that the steering group idea was on hold pending the conclusion of Kennedy's report and a provincial inquiry into Dziekanski's death (which reconvenes next week).

Vancouver Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh also believes there should be national standards around Taser use.

Dosanjh was B.C.'s attorney-general in 2000 when he first approved police use of Tasers in B.C., the first province in Canada to do so. The RCMP adopted the weapon in 2001.

Dosanjh now feels he was duped by those who advised him that the weapon was completely safe and would only be deployed when a subject displayed "assaultive and combative behaviour."

There have been 20 deaths in Canada involving people who have received Taser shocks, which incapacitate the muscles through darts propelled out of the hand-held electrical stun gun.

Dosanjh concedes a Taser is less dangerous than a bullet from a gun, which is the position of police, who say the Taser has saved many lives and reduced injuries to both suspects and officers.

But Kennedy raised concerns about "usage creep" in recent years -- that Tasers have been used to subdue "resistant subjects who do not pose a threat of grievous bodily harm."

Kennedy was asked to review Taser use in response to the death of Dziekanski, who had wandered around the secure area of Vancouver's airport for many hours, unable to speak English and unable to find his mother.

Looking exhausted and disoriented, the Polish man began throwing things around and was Tasered multiple times within seconds of being confronted by RCMP officers.

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