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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Law enforcement re-examines taser

January 17, 2009
Lori Culbert, Vancouver Sun

The death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport threw police use of Tasers under an international spotlight, one that will glare even brighter when the Braidwood inquiry reconvenes Monday.

And Paul Kennedy, the RCMP's civilian watchdog, announced this week he has launched an investigation into the deaths of Canadians who were Tasered by police officers.

But police are not the only officers armed with the electric stun guns. The controversial weapons are also carried by Transit police -- who were criticized last year for using Tasers on fare evaders -- as well as corrections guards and court sheriffs.

Through a Freedom of Information Request, The Vancouver Sun obtained copies of reports sheriffs were required to fill out each of the 143 times they threatened to use or deployed a Taser since getting the weapons in October 2001.

In some cases the Tasers were used according to policy, such as to immobilize combative people while escorting them from jail to court, or dealing with them in courtrooms or courthouse cells.

In other cases, the Tasers appear to have been used by sheriffs to gain compliance from people who were unruly, but usually unarmed and occasionally handcuffed or behind bars.

B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal, whose ministry oversees sheriffs, maintained the 29 times B.C. sheriffs actually fired their Tasers were under "fairly strict circumstances," requiring an intermediate use of force -- more than pepper spray and less than a gun.

He argued sheriffs have been more cautious than police in their use of the stun guns. However, he conceded that some lessons have been learned as many law enforcement agencies have been re-examining the most appropriate use of the Taser.

Ministry officials say their policy was under review even before Dziekanski's October 2007 death and has been changed "to ensure the Taser is not used as a force option to compel compliance when there is no assaultive or combative behaviour."

The change is intended to be consistent with recommendations made in December 2007 by Kennedy, the RCMP's public complaints commissioner, who reviewed the weapons and urged a restricted use of them.

"The controversy that is presently swirling around this issue hasn't really escaped our policy makers in the ministry, as far as sheriffs are concerned," Oppal added.

Kennedy's new review will specifically examine the cases in which a person died after being Tasered, whether police complied with policies when using the weapon and whether those policies are adequate.

At least 25 people in Canada have died after being Tasered by police between 2001 and 2008. About 10 of these deaths involve the RCMP.

The sad case of Dziekanski, who died after being shocked five times by the RCMP, put a partial "chill" on the use of Tasers, Oppal said. That is not entirely a bad thing, he added, as it has allowed law enforcement agencies to reflect on Taser use.

"The last thing we need is to have an overuse of Tasers where their use is not appropriate," Oppal said.

Deployment reports obtained by The Sun show sheriffs relied on Tasers 143 times between October 2001 and June 2008, when The Sun filed its FOI request. Sheriffs threatened to use the Taser 13 times, drew the weapon 19 times, activated its sensor beam 82 times, and deployed it in 29 cases.

Use appears to have peaked in 2006, falling slightly in 2007 and more noticeably in 2008.

The following are highlights of a few cases based on sheriffs' written reports. (The names of the inmates and sheriffs, as well as the locations of the incidents, were blacked out in the reports provided to The Sun):

n A violent inmate was put in leg irons and handcuffs, but resisted when sheriffs tried to attach a box over the cuffs' lock. Sheriffs tried to reason with him and Taser warnings were given, but he retreated to the back of the cell and swore.

"He was in a confined area of the cell near the toilet and bench and there was limited room to apply a control tactic. The situation did not warrant the use of OC spray or an impact weapon," the sheriff wrote in his 2006 report. Taser darts were fired into the inmate's left arm and activated for five sections. A senior sheriff later wrote that the actions taken were appropriate because "the Taser provided the least violent means of controlling [the inmate's] escalating behaviour."

It appears from the reports that three other people have been Tasered by sheriffs while wearing handcuffs since 2001.

n A bipolar prisoner, with a history of overdosing, was ripping up his jail blanket, which sheriffs tried unsuccessfully to take away so he couldn't make a noose. He was warned he would be Tasered but "bundled the blanket in front of himself so as to avert the Taser," one sheriff wrote in 2002. Another sheriff's report said: "I told him that I was going to Taser him at this time if he did not comply, he did not answer. I then Tasered [the man] in the back on the left side of his body, he then fell onto the bench." The inmate apologized and said he didn't want to repeat the pain. He had one Taser probe removed in hospital.

n A prisoner inside his cell swore and threw punches towards a sheriff, and then fought with another inmate. The sheriff warned that the Taser would be used, but the first prisoner continued to assault the second inmate. Two Taser probes hit the man in the back and he fell to the ground. The prisoner's rib cage, which he said he had injured in a recent fall, was "quite sensitive to touch," the 2003 report says.

n A prisoner, who was upset he couldn't keep his 11 shirts with him, knocked the lights out in his cell and refused to move to a lighted cell. The man, who had a history of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest, ignored several orders to kneel on a bench so restraints could be applied. The report said he instead sat on the bench, despite multiple warnings that he could be Tasered.

"I recognized [the man] as a high-risk resister at this time and because of the recent actions and history of the accused, I firmly believed that he would become an assailant," a sheriff wrote in 2003. He was shocked, falling to the floor in the fetal position. Leg irons were put on, but the man refused to put his arms behind his back for handcuffs, so he was zapped again. One probe was removed from his chest in hospital. A sheriff punctured his thumb while moving the other probe, and took precautions against Hepatitis C.

n A man put his hands around the door handle of his cell to avoid being handcuffed, and ignored Taser warnings as he swung his body and legs so two sheriffs could not bring him to the ground. The man was zapped in the thigh, but did not stop kicking. "A second contact stun was applied to [his] stomach area. [The man] seemed to not be effected by the Taser. A third contact stun was applied to the groin area," a sheriff wrote in 2008. "[The man] was sweating profusely. He stated that he did not want to get Tasered again." A nurse concluded he had no injuries other than a small cut on his face.

The reports indicated there were two other incidents in which sheriffs had Tasered someone three times, and eight when they had been shocked twice.

n An in-custody prisoner escaped from a Port Coquitlam courtroom, kicked a sheriff, and ran to a parking lot and jumped into a car. Several sheriffs tried to pull him out of the car but he resisted, despite warnings he would be Tasered. The man was shocked twice before sheriffs could handcuff him. The prisoner was taken to see a doctor, but no injuries were documented.

There were no reports of deaths following tasering by a sheriff in B.C.

Among the most serious injuries were those suffered by Jeff Janco, who had two broken ribs and a punctured lung after struggling with sheriffs in the Abbotsford courthouse.

In media interviews after the 2003 incident, Janco said he was agitated by a bipolar condition and was kicking his cell door and yelling when he "was almost killed" by the sheriffs.

A 2005 internal review found the sheriffs' actions "justified and appropriate" because Jano had created "an extraordinary and very difficult situation." That conclusion was dismissed as a "self-serving" by Janco's lawyer Don Morrison, B.C.'s former police complaints commissioner.

The report filled out by the sheriffs involved in the incident agreed Janco had been kicking and yelling in his cell. But it went on to suggest he "lunged" towards four sheriffs who came into his cell to put him into restraints, kicking two of them and elbowing one in the head. He was warned several times he would be Tasered, and was zapped twice. He was in handcuffs for at least one of the shocks.

Although an internal review of the Janco case cleared the sheriffs, it also produced several recommendations that ultimately led to B.C.-wide improvements in communications between sheriffs, police and corrections, and better training for interacting with disruptive prisoners who may be having a crisis.

Janco, however, has filed a civil suit against the Ministry of the Attorney-General, alleging he was battered by the sheriffs in an unprovoked attack. The ministry has denied wrongdoing, and the case is before the courts.

David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, was aware of another case that raises questions about appropriate use of force: In 2006, a TV camera filmed four sheriffs kneeling on a man and tasering him outside provincial court in Vancouver, as he appeared to be screaming "I can't breathe."

"The sheriffs have a tough job, but there are concerns about four sheriffs not being able to subdue someone without using a Taser," said Eby, a lawyer formerly with the Pivot Legal Society, which has raised repeated concerns about officers' use of Tasers.

The sheriffs' report on this incident says the man was homeless and known to be violent, and that a female sheriff was given a Taser and told to watch him inside a courtroom. The man became upset when his bail conditions were varied, and a sheriff escorted him outside to be released. However, the man became combative and the female sheriff gave a warning before firing the Taser probes, which did not fully penetrate the man's skin.

The struggling man curled up in a fetal position and refused to release his hands despite more warnings. A male sheriff leaned on him and zapped his back twice.

Eby was optimistic the inquiry into taser use -- headed by former judge Tom Braidwood -- will provide recommendations for standards of use and testing of the weapons.

"Hopefully when that report comes out, that will give the province and the police some guidelines about how to improve their policies," he said. "We feel they should only be used as a weapon of last resort, that is, short of using a gun."

B.C. sheriff services superintendent Paul Corrado said last year at the Braidwood inquiry sheriffs would not use the Taser for compliance, but as a weapon of control when other options are inappropriate.

Corrado also testified that sheriffs were led to believe that the weapon poses no safety risk.

"What source has led you to believe that?" commission counsel Patrick McGowan asked.

"The manufacturer, Taser International," Corrado replied.

Oppal said he doesn't believe there is zero safety risk, arguing that the province did not merely take the manufacturer's word on risks, but tried to balance how the weapon should be used.

While testifying, Corrado identified a 2007 case on the Sunshine Coast as a good example of Taser use by sheriffs who controlled an aggressive man in the Sechelt courthouse.

According to the report about that incident, a man became upset after he was remanded for a psychiatric assessment. A sheriff grabbed his right arm and another sheriff took his left arm, but the man struggled and half-dragged both sheriffs across the room. Three Mounties and a guard arrived, but the six officers could not get the man's hands behind his back.

He was warned and then shocked twice. "[He] began to resist again. I said hit him again but [he] complied and allowed himself to be cuffed so [the sheriff] did not have to apply the Taser for a third time," the report said. The man complained of chest pains and an elevated heart rate, and was given X-rays in the hospital.

Dean Purdy, who specializes in corrections and sheriffs' issues for the B.C. Government Employees Union, said Tasers have been beneficial to sheriffs facing increasing levels of violence -- a result of more mentally ill inmates, more gangs, more potent drugs, overcrowding in jails and younger offenders.

He said the majority of B.C.'s 440 sheriffs are trained to use a Taser but cannot carry them without approval from a supervisor during a specific situation.

Purdy said the vast majority of Taser reports involve cases when the threat, drawing or activation of the weapon is enough to subdue an unruly person.

He would not comment on incidents in which Tasers were fired, deferring those questions to the Attorney-General's Ministry.

Purdy also insisted sheriffs are aware of safety risks associated with the Tasers, noting that all members, including himself, have been zapped so they know what it feels like.

"From my perspective, I don't see it as something that is dangerous. I see it as lower on the use-of-force scale, below the ASP baton and just above the pepper spray," said Purdy, who is a corrections officer.

The Braidwood inquiry is scheduled to recommence Monday for six weeks, and this segment will focus on Dziekanski's death after he arrived in Vancouver from Poland and began upset while lost in the airport. The first witnesses to take the stand will be another passenger, airline workers, airport authority staff, and Canada Border Services Agency employees.

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