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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Taser use-of-force details crucial to setting standards: experts

July 15, 2008
Neco Cockburn, Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA - An Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services working group that is reviewing Tasers has identified use-of-force reporting forms "as an issue," a spokesman said Tuesday.

The group's review is expected to be completed in the winter, said ministry spokesman Tony Brown.

According to some police procedure experts, details missing from the current provincially regulated forms - which are used for training purposes and to compile information about Taser use by police departments - are crucial to understanding when, how and why police officers use the controversial devices, which deliver a pulsating electrical current that overpowers a target's nervous system.

The province's use-of-force forms have not been updated since they were introduced in 1990 and lack mandatory spaces for details such as the number of times a person was Tasered or whether the device was deployed in probe mode or "push-stun" mode, when the device is pressed against the body as more of a pain compliance tool.

"The reports feed directly into policy making," said Michael Lyman, a criminal justice professor at Columbia College of Missouri.

"We want to know who specifically is using the weapon and how often and under what circumstances," said Mr. Lyman, who is not a member of the working group.

Donald Van Blaricom, a former police chief in Bellevue, Washington, said agencies have been tightening up policies to try to eliminate misuse of the Taser.

"Of course, if you're going to tighten up your policy, you have to have detailed information on what's being done," said Mr. Van Blaricom, adding that a computer chip contained in each Taser records details about its use.

"That should be downloaded on each one of these use-of-force reports," he said.

Mr. Van Blaricom, who is often retained as a police practices expert, said he once dealt with a case in which a police officer in Mississippi used a Taser in push-stun mode on a woman 18 times, but only reported using the device twice.

"The more detailed the reporting form is, the better it can be reviewed."

Meanwhile, Frank Addario, president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, which has called for a moratorium on the use of Tasers pending further study, characterized the device as "a contact weapon that has the potential to be deadly.

"Therefore, the circumstances under which it is being used and the justification for its use as opposed to some other manner of controlling the threat needs to be set out and there need to be standards," he said Tuesday.

Last month, the Citizen received 115 Taser-related use-of-force reports from Ottawa police under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The reports show that more than half the people involved in such incidents in the city are suicidal, mentally ill or emotionally disturbed.

Lorne Zon, chief executive officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario, said Tuesday that the findings highlight the need for police forces to have training in responding to mental health situations and knowledge of crisis teams that can be available when a mental health issue is identified.

Mr. Zon also said that "more uniform collection of information and public reporting of the findings" would help set standards and help the public and police to assess Taser use.

Since October, Ottawa police have used an extra form to capture additional details regarding Taser use, such as how many times it was deployed and under what circumstances. However, those forms are not provincially regulated.

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