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Friday, February 13, 2009

Acknowledging high risk of death, RCMP revamps rules for taser use

February 13, 2009

OTTAWA -- With a report from The Canadian Press

Given the "high risk of death" in some cases, RCMP officers are now limited in their use of tasers to individuals who pose a clear threat to the public or police, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott said yesterday.

Mr. Elliott used two public appearances to provide new details on the RCMP's taser policy, which has come under fire after the death of Polish traveller Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver's airport in 2007.

The new restrictions have been in place since last June, but were laid out in full only yesterday, two months after the announcement that four Mounties who used a taser to subdue Mr. Dziekanski would not face criminal charges.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Mr. Elliott said the weapons can no longer be used against people who are simply refusing to co-operate with Mounties.

"Prior to June of last year, the RCMP's policies would have permitted the use of tasers in dealing, for example, with people who were actively resistant," he said. "We've now made it very clear that the only time the use of a taser can be justified is where there is a threat, either to our officers or to members of the public."

There have been more than a dozen deaths related to the use of tasers in Canada. Still, Mr. Elliott insisted that while the weapons "hurt like hell," they are much safer than firearms and are not lethal per se.

"I do not think there is evidence that tasers kill, but certainly, we have had some incidents where shortly after a taser was deployed, individuals died," he told reporters.

Mr. Elliott acknowledged that in circumstances involving agitated individuals, the risks associated with tasers can increase dramatically.

"All members must recognize that any use of force entails risk. Acutely agitated or delirious persons may be at a high risk of death," Mr. Elliott said.

He first informed Parliament of the new policy in a morning appearance at the public safety committee of the House. He said he could not brief MPs on the changes beforehand, given the House hasn't sat much since last summer.

Still, some MPs were unsatisfied with the RCMP's new approach to tasers. Ontario Liberal MP Mark Holland said he wants a clearer definition of a "threatening individual" who can be tasered.

"Where are they drawing the lines?" Mr. Holland asked. "I have no level of comfort at this point that the lines are firmly drawn where they need to, given that in the commissioner's own words, these weapons cause death."

Mr. Holland added that he is disappointed that the RCMP is relying on U.S. studies to justify its use of tasers. He said that there should be limits on the weapon's use against children and teenagers.

Mr. Elliott, however, said the RCMP is not prepared to go in that direction.

"Unfortunately, our officers, from time to time, encounter 14-year-olds who are extremely threatening," he said.

Sergeant Scott Warren, chairman of the RCMP's officer safety committee, said the matter is more complicated in real-life situations.

"The commissioner, with all due respect, is incorrect to say we wouldn't use them again for actively resistant people," he told CTV News.

There is an ongoing public inquiry into the Dziekanski case in British Columbia. The province's Solicitor-General, John van Dongen, said the new RCMP policy is a step in the right direction, but that the government will wait until the end of the inquiry to form a provincial set of standards.

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