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Monday, October 27, 2008

RCMP report shines light on Taser use

October 27, 2008
Jim Bronskill and Sue Bailey, THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA–A new RCMP report says officers get no training on using Tasers in jails, even though 10 per cent of people hit with a mountie stun gun late last year was behind bars.

The force's first quarterly analysis of Taser use recommends mock cell block drills be included in RCMP instruction sessions.

The report says Mounties used their Tasers 337 times from October through December last year. Thirty-four cases, or just over 10 per cent, involved people in custody, "yet there are currently no cell block scenarios in the RCMP's training material."

Opposition MPs and human-rights groups have previously criticized the RCMP for suppressing details of Taser use, including injuries suffered by people stunned and whether they were experiencing a mental health crisis at the time.

The RCMP had no immediate comment on its quarterly report.

Melisa Leclerc, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, said the minister expects "these recommendations to be implemented in a timely manner."

Hilary Homes, security and human rights campaigner with Amnesty International Canada, said she was concerned by the lack of training, and wondered whether the stun guns were being deployed like a cattle prod. "We would like to see use restricted to situations of imminent threat, recognizing that it is a very powerful device," she said.

An analysis last year by The Canadian Press of hundreds of RCMP Taser incidents between 2002 and 2005 turned up several cases in which Mounties used the device to make uncooperative prisoners comply with demands.

Kim Pate, executive director, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, questioned Taser use in jails at all. "Why would we need the use of Tasers for individuals who are already in custody, in detention?" she asked.

The new RCMP figures include the case of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died in October 2007 after being zapped and pinned down at the Vancouver International Airport. His painful final minutes, captured on a passenger's video camera, sparked public outrage and a flurry of inquiries.

There's also Robert Knipstrom of Chilliwack, B.C., who died in hospital last November days after being Tasered, pepper sprayed and hit with a baton.

In addition, says the report, one person suffered fractured ribs and another complained of increased heart rate following Taser zaps, and eight others suffered minor injuries such as facial cuts as a result of falling after a stun gun hit.

Responses to mental health or suicidal subjects accounted for 61 – or almost one in five – instances of Taser use.

The report says that in almost one-quarter of cases studied, members used the Taser in cases in which they reported facing a threat of death or grievous bodily harm.

It recommends policy and training relating to such cases be reviewed, since current training instructs members to use lethal force – a conventional gun – to defuse those threats.

Last December, the Commission for Complaints Against the RCMP said the Taser should be used only when suspects are "combative" or pose a risk of "death or grievous bodily harm" to an officer, themselves or the public.

Paul Kennedy, head of the commission, said RCMP "usage creep" of the powerful electronic weapons meant Mounties were firing the guns from a distance, or in up-close stun mode, more than they should.

Kennedy's final report, issued in June, reiterated his call for tighter controls on an electronic weapon the Mounties had pulled from their holsters more than 4,000 times since its introduction in 2001.

In response, the RCMP said it would take action "as quickly as possible" to provide clearer direction to officers and further restrict reliance on the Taser.

The new report found that during the three-month period it examined:

– RCMP officers reported alcohol or drug use by people zapped in 85 per cent of cases.

– The Taser effectively stopped or prevented subjects' behaviour in 84 per cent of incidents.

– Cases of causing a disturbance, assaults, domestic disputes, cell block altercations and mental health cases accounted for more than 65 per cent Taser uses.

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