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Saturday, February 14, 2009

EDITORIAL: Clarify rules, don't ban Tasers

February 14, 2009

The police officer makes a split-second decision to use force and to what degree. Even as he does so he knows his every move will be parsed later in excruciating detail -- by his superiors, by various watchdogs and by the courts.

Truth is, cops deserve the benefit of the doubt. During every shift they face risks and a degree of unpleasantness most other workers can't imagine.

Still, it's good news that the RCMP has finally adjusted its policy on Taser use. This wasn't about Monday-morning quarterbacking. It was about facing the obvious, which is in a number of cases people have died after being zapped, when police had no intention of using lethal force.

Most of us have seen the video of the Taser being used on Robert Dziekanski by RCMP officers at Vancouver's airport, after which he died.

But that isn't the only instance. The RCMP themselves have had this happen 11 times, according to Amnesty International. There have been 25 deaths in Canada in total, according to the human-rights agency.

In the past the Mounties had always argued using a Taser is an appropriate means of pacifying someone who is "resistant," or delirious. Under the new rules, a Taser can only be used when the only other alternative is lethal force. In other words, if a cop or the public is in imminent danger.

In announcing the new policy, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott pointedly said there's no evidence Tasers kill. That corroborates the view of Taser International, the device's maker.

But Elliott also noted the pattern of deaths following a Taser being used suggests it may have been a factor in some cases.

That falls into the "duh" category for most reasonable people. If a person is already on the borderline healthwise, zapping them with 50,000 volts can't be risk-free.

It should only be done when an officer has no other option but to fire his or her sidearm.

Clearer rules around the use of these weapons are long overdue. Let's hope other police forces around the country quickly follow suit.

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