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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Interim taser "restrictions" in Nova Scotia (Canada)

Police in Nova Scotia must only use Tasers when they are threatened with violence or the public is put in danger, provincial Justice Minister Cecil Clarke said Thursday.

Nova Scotia is getting stricter about police Taser use, but the minister stopped short of a moratorium on stun guns.

Mr. Clarke released the second part of a ministerial review on Tasers on Thursday, saying he was restricting the use of the devices to "situations of violent or aggressive resistance or active threat" that could cause injury to police, the public or a suspect.

"I am instructing our law enforcement officials to continue to be prudent when they are making a judgment call about someone before using the conducted-energy device," the minister told a Province House news conference.

The review report, written by a seven-member advisory panel, said the provincial standard for Taser use by municipal police was "unacceptably vague" and said there were concerns about the device being used as a "compliance tool" on people who weren’t actively resisting.

Mr. Clarke said the restrictions will be in place until his department conducts a full policy review. Mr. Clarke said the province will hire a co-ordinator on use of force who will establish new standards for who should use the devices as well as how and when.

"I believe Nova Scotia is poised to be a world leader in the safe and prudent use of these devices," Mr. Clarke said.

Robert Purcell, executive director of the Justice Department’s public safety division, said the interim restrictions make things clearer for police officers. "This is setting the point at which a Taser is to be deployed at the upper range of the active resistance, where there is both the element of aggression or violence," said Mr. Purcell, a former police officer.

Taser use in the province increased 80 per cent in three years, to 182 times in 2007 from 101 times in 2005.

Mr. Clarke, who accepted all 16 of the report’s recommendations, said he is satisfied a moratorium on Tasers is not necessary. In fact, he said, the panel that wrote the report said a Taser ban would increase the risk to both the public and law enforcement.

Both the RCMP and Halifax Regional Police said the wording of the interim restrictions is similar to policies their forces already have in place.

"Not a big change for officers on the street for HRP in relation to when they use the device," said Const. Jeff Carr, regional police spokesman.

RCMP Supt. Blair McKnight, the officer in charge of criminal operations in Nova Scotia, said they are still having a look at the report, but so far "nothing sticks out as problematic."

"We think we can work within those parameters," he said Thursday.

NDP justice critic Bill Estabrooks said he doesn’t think the new restrictions will change much. "It still comes down to the judgment of the officer in that particular incident and the circumstances involved," he said. "Each one is different, I understand, but I had hoped there would be much more direction given to officers when they make that decision that they are going to rely on the Taser."

Mr. Estabrooks said the planned hiring of a co-ordinator on use of force will just add another level of bureaucracy.

Liberal justice critic Michel Samson said he hopes the message will be clear that police should be extremely careful about when they use Tasers. "Tasers should only be used in very limited situations, certainly not at the level we have seen in the past," Mr. Samson said.

Mr. Clarke ordered the report after the death of Howard Hyde, a Dartmouth man who died about 30 hours after he was Tasered by Halifax police. Mr. Hyde, who suffered from schizophrenia, died Nov. 22 after struggling with jail guards and collapsing at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth.

Mr. Hyde’s sister, Joanna Blair, said she was encouraged that the report recommends the province establish a panel of experts to address the issue of excited delirium, a state of agitated, exhaustive mania. But she said the report doesn’t answer the family’s main question — why Mr. Hyde, who was in an obvious psychotic state, wasn’t transferred to hospital? She said the family still has not received a report from the medical examiner about the cause of her brother’s death. "I, and my family, have been left in the dark for eight months now," Ms. Blair said. "It’s been very arduous for all of us."

Thursday’s report is the second from the panel. The first report, released in March, said the amount of Taser training differs significantly among law enforcement agencies.

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