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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ontario has no mandatory section for police to explain stun-gun incidents

July 15, 2008
Neco Cockburn, The Ottawa Citizen

Several details about Taser use are missing from provincially regulated reports used to collect information about the use of force by police departments.

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services' use-of-force forms have not changed since being introduced in 1990 and do not contain mandatory areas for officers to explain how and why a Taser was used.

According to staff at the ministry, which provided an e-mail response to a written question about oversight of Taser use, the forms are used for training and analysis purposes and can be used to compile information about the devices, which were introduced in the province after a pilot project in 2000.

However, many of 115 use-of-force reports involving Taser use by Ottawa police officers obtained by the Citizen under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act contain little information that helps to give context to each use of the device, which delivers a pulsating electrical current that overpowers the target's nervous system.

The reports, one of the few policing forms that remain on paper rather than being electronic, contain areas where officers can check off various descriptions of the circumstances surrounding an incident, such as location, weather conditions, weapon carried by subject, number of officers involved and distance between the officer and subject at the time the decision was made to use force.

They have not been updated to include Tasers among the use-of-force options. Instead, officers must write the device into a category marked "other" on the form.

An officer could indicate the number of times a person was Tasered or whether the device was used in probe mode or "push stun" mode, when the device is pressed against the body, in a section marked "narrative."

However, the narrative section is not required to be filled out if an occurrence report has been filed as part of the police investigation. And it can be difficult to track down the detailed occurrence report from a use-of-force report, which contains no personal information.

"If the province wanted to come in and look at any type of stats, we would be able to give them certain numbers," said Const. Greg Borger, use of force analyst with Ottawa police.

But if officials wanted to determine how many times a device was used and whether it was effective, for example, "they'd have to literally go and pull the hard copies and review and take a look at them," Const. Borger said.

Since many of the narrative sections are not required to be filled out -- and are not entered into a database -- officials would have to go back to the occurrence reports for contextual details and "that might be very difficult to do," said Const. Borger.

Some narratives on reports completed by Ottawa police contain only sparse descriptions such as "tactical team dealing with EDP (emotionally disturbed person)" or "male Tasered to effect arrest," without detailing or explaining the events that occurred leading up to the decision to use the device.

One of the biggest controversies Ottawa has seen over police use of the device happened in 2003, when Ottawa police and RCMP Tasered several Algerians during a sit-in at the immigration minister's office. Five threatened to sue, but no officers were disciplined.

At that protest, Ottawa police also used a Taser on Paul Smith, a self-described expert in civil disobedience, while struggling to get him into a cruiser. Mr. Smith, who was handcuffed at the time and had "gone limp," was Tasered twice in the leg by Const. Paulo Batista, who was cleared in an internal investigation, but later found guilty of misconduct by the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services.

Two use-of-force reports in 2003 refer to a protest; both involve the same number of subjects and ended at the same time. All that is written into the narrative on one report is that a "tactical unit attended protest to effect arrests. Twelve protesters arrested. Several were uncooperative. Officer used Taser to effect arrest."

The other report simply says, "extracting protesters from a room after they were asked to leave. Arrested for mischief."

Other narratives contain similarly sparse details:

? About five years ago, officers used a Taser three times when a man reportedly resisted arrest. The narrative only states that "patrol requested tactical unit attend and assist with the arrest of a subject who was resisting arrest -- Taser was used three times and was effective."

? In 2004, the tactical unit searched an apartment while executing a drug warrant. "One officer implemented the Taser on an uncooperative occupant resisting being handcuffed," is all the narrative states.

In an e-mail response to a question about oversight of the Taser in Ontario, ministry staff wrote that police services are not required to submit use-of-force reports to the ministry, but the minister can ask for a report at any time.

"It is in this manner that information on Tasers is compiled," the e-mail said.

The ministry also has a guideline that recommends Ontario police services review the reports for training purposes and analyse trends.

But it remains unclear how much useful information can be collected from the forms for oversight purposes. And a section of the form that includes details about the officer involved is destroyed within 30 days.

Among findings released in a report last month, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP urged the force to change its reporting forms to maintain better descriptions of the events that led to the use of the device and better means of analysing what is compiled.

The report found it was often difficult to determine the "situational context" of deployments based on information contained in RCMP reports.

"For oversight and analysis purposes, the narrative portion of (the reporting form) needs to be properly filled out and an effective way of analysing that data must be identified and implemented," the report said.

It recommended that reporting includes "clear and concise" descriptions of the deployment, including the circumstances of use, the subject's behaviour and how that may have changed over the course of interaction, as well as situational factors that led to the officer choosing the Taser over other options.

The report also touched in the necessity to keep better records of how the Taser is deployed.

It found that among RCMP officers, the device is more commonly used in push-stun mode than probe mode. Push-stun mode will generally cause muscular incapacitation and is considered to be a pain-compliance tool, the report said. When deployed in push-stun mode alone, the device was used twice or more in 40 per cent of cases, according to the report.

"Given the propensity for 'usage creep,' the RCMP must have a clearer means of monitoring this type of deployment."

In Ottawa, police contend they use the forms as directed by the ministry, saying they are analysed and maintained for training and statistical purposes. A use-of-force analyst looks at each report and may consult with the officer involved if details are lacking or if clarification is needed, or if additional training is determined to be necessary.

Police Chief Vern White said his department uses the information to ensure appropriate use of the tool, but not oversight.

"We're not trying to justify the use of OC (pepper) spray, baton or Tasers. That's not our goal, to try and justify it," said Chief White, who has also asked to receive an e-mail summary of each Taser incident after the force expanded its use in October to provide supervisors with the device. Previously, only the force's tactical team had used the devices.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that they used the appropriate tool when they had to," Chief White said.

Since his time with the force, the police chief said he has had "no concerns about the use of Tasers in this city."

Ottawa police have also started using an internal form to provide additional details regarding Taser use, such as the number of times the device was used on a person and how it was deployed, since the number of users was expanded. That form, however, is not regulated by the province.

There are no plans to change policies or procedures in Ontario following the RCMP report, but "the ministry, along with our police stakeholders, has begun a review of conducted energy weapons" that is expected to be completed in the winter, ministry staff said in an e-mail.

The ministry will consider the RCMP report's findings and recommendations, staff said.

Last August, the Citizen filed a request with Ottawa police for information regarding Taser use.

The use-of-force reports were only released last month. The force's freedom-of-information office said for months that it was too difficult to find the requested information.

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