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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Saskatchewan ombudsman report on tasers released

July 29, 2008
James Wood, Regina Leader Post

REGINA -- The provincial ombudsman has set a good direction for the government to follow if it ever decides to revisit its shelved plans to introduce Tasers into Saskatchewan jails, says Corrections, Public Safety and Policing Minister Darryl Hickie.

The report by ombudsman Kevin Fenwick released Tuesday said there is not enough reliable information on the health impact of Tasers, echoing comments made last week by the Saskatchewan Police Commission in rescinding its earlier approval of their use by front-line police.

Nor is there adequate information on whether the situation in correctional centres warrants the use of Tasers, despite the contention of Corrections staff that the environments have become more volatile, said the report.

"We hear these stories about the changing nature of corrections and the increased levels of violence etcetera, but it's all anecdotal . . . The reporting system within the correctional centres for acts of violence or acts that require discipline is not very good," said Fenwick in an interview Tuesday.

Fenwick's report does not make an actual recommendation as to whether Tasers should be allowed for jail emergency response teams %96 as was planned last year %96 but said a great deal of work needs to be done before any decision is made.

He recommends that the province should convene a multi-disciplinary panel that includes medical practitioners to review the available research concerning the human effects of Tasers.

Special attention should be paid to vulnerable populations such as those found in the adult correctional system.

He acknowledged that would likely require new research, as most of the research done has been in relation to policing, not corrections, and the testing has been done on healthy subjects.

The ombudsman also recommends a reporting system be established to allow Corrections, Public Safety and Policing to determine the volatility of its correctional centres and the need for Tasers.

The province was in the process of introducing Tasers at the province's three correctional centres last fall, but their use was put on hold after Polish citizen Robert Dziekanski died at the Vancouver International Airport in October after being shot with a Taser by RCMP.

Fenwick's report reveals for the first time that an inmate was Tasered last September during a cell extraction. He said the device was used properly in the situation but that it was not authorized.

It was Hickie that put the Taser implementation plan on hold after the Saskatchewan Party government took office last fall. A former police officer and federal prison guard, Hickie has repeatedly expressed skepticism about the value of Tasers in the controlled environment of a jail.

He said Tuesday he is open to new information -- including input from British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Yukon where Tasers are allowed for use in the corrections system -- but would have to be convinced to reopen the Taser issue.

But he said the ombudsman's report would play a valuable role if that is the case. "Now that he's put forward these recommendations, we would look at these like a road map and keep (the ombudsman) in the loop if we move forward in a very responsible manner, if we even do so," said Hickie.

The Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union, which represents jail guards, declined to comment Tuesday.

With 21 recommendations in all, Fenwick also addressed policy issues that would come into play if the government decides to adopt Tasers. He suggested they be classified as an "impact weapon" in the government's use of force management model, to be used only where there is "active, overt and violent resistance and immediate control is required." That's a step higher than its classification last year as an intermediate weapon, which is the category that includes pepper spray and batons.

Fenwick said there are valid arguments for the use of Tasers within jails. But his report also raises the issue of Tasers being used in the "stun" setting, where the device is applied directly to induce compliance, as opposed to being used to subdue a violent suspect.

"If there is a use, it's to replace the next-most serious use of force. For police officers for example, it's (use of a Taser) instead of a firearm," he said.

"When it's being used in "stun" mode, it's clearly not being used in place of the next-most serious use of force. It's being used in place of something less serious. That causes us great concern."

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