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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

EDITORIAL: We'd welcome fuller disclosure

January 21, 2009

To the RCMP it was known simply as Occurrence No. 2007-34748. But in the form in which the document was publicly released to two major national media organizations last year, it was difficult to get a full picture of exactly what had occurred.

Through liberal use of a blackout pen, the name and rank of the police officer involved in the incident and the name of the officer's supervisor were among the pertinent details deleted. Also deleted was the name of Robert Dziekanski, whose death in a Tasering incident at Vancouver International Airport in 2007 provoked a national debate about the use by police of these controversial electronic stun guns.

The absurdity of deleting the Polish immigrant's name from an official police report into his death -- a report that was pried loose by The Canadian Press and the CBC through access to information legislation -- brought loud complaints from opposition MPs and human rights groups, who criticized the Mounties for suppressing key details about Taser cases.

Fewer complaints have been voiced following the release of an annual national freedom of information audit commissioned by the Canadian Newspaper Association, part of which related to police reports about Taser use.

The association, a non-profit organization that represents all of Canada's daily newspapers, set itself an ambitious goal: to seek the release of all reports prepared by officers at various Canadian police agencies during 2007 and 2008 related to the use of Tasers or similar electronic control devices.

Not surprisingly, only five per cent of those requests resulted in full disclosure. The Guelph Police Service was not among them.

Now let's make it clear -- Guelph Police do a better job than many of their counterparts when it comes to conveying information on Taser cases.

The Guelph force reveals details of Taser incidents its officers are involved in through summaries that are released quarterly -- and publicly -- at police board meetings. And we've reported on what's contained in those summaries.

But that's what they are -- summaries, a distillation of the official reports filled out by police officers about specific incidents. We're assured by the department that the summaries are more than a precis of an incident and that they contain "all of the details" -- with some notable exceptions.

Not included for public edification is the name of the officer who used the Taser, the name of the person who received the electronic jolt, or the exact date or time of an incident. Guelph Police say they are precluded from releasing those details under provincial privacy legislation -- which echoes the response from the RCMP in the case of the heavily censored four-page form related to the death of Robert Dziekanski.

But censored or not -- and the Mounties later apologized for the excessive secrecy surrounding its use-of-force Taser reports -- that RCMP document was released following a freedom of information request.

In the Canadian Newspaper Association audit, the responses to requests for the release of those so-called field reports ranged widely, from outright refusals to the release of the reports with key information, such as the names of those involved, removed prior to release.

This is an issue of public accountability. There's no reason for some Canadian police forces to feel it's their duty to release these reports, however censored they are, while others feel they can only safely release summaries of those reports.

Full reports, even with large sections blotted out because of privacy concerns, have the potential to provide the public with a fuller context and a better picture of how Tasers are used.

That's vital as the debate continues about when and how police use them -- or whether they should be used at all.

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