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Sunday, February 15, 2009

EDITORIAL: Holster those stun guns

February 15, 2009
Toronto Star

Stun guns may be less lethal than pistols. But police officers who use them on agitated or delirious people expose them to "the risk of death." That blunt admission from Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner William Elliott to Parliament's public safety committee this past week was welcome and overdue.

It puts police across the nation on notice that they should resist the urge to pull out their Tasers before exhausting other low-risk options.

Stung by the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who was stunned five times at the Vancouver airport, the RCMP has tightened its rules for using the weapons, though perhaps not enough.

The RCMP has no evidence that Tasers themselves are lethal. But any use of force carries risk for highly agitated individuals.

So RCMP officers may now lawfully use the guns only "where it is necessary to do so in circumstances of threats to officer or public safety," Elliott said. They shouldn't be routinely hauled out to incapacitate obnoxious, resistant or erratic people.

Alex Neve of Amnesty International Canada welcomes this as "a huge breakthrough." And RCMP complaints commissioner Paul Kennedy, who has lobbied against stun gun "usage creep," also welcomes the change, though he cautions that the rules are still broad and vague.

There's a case to be made that the RCMP should further tighten its policy to prohibit stun guns except to deal with severe threats to life and limb. That hasn't always been the case. The RCMP used the weapons more than 5,000 times in the past seven years, the Canadian Press reports. And a CP analysis from 2002 to 2005 found that three in four suspects zapped were unarmed. The force promises to monitor use, which should provide the data needed to establish whether the policy is working. Elliott's message needs to get through to the rank and file.

But the RCMP, the Toronto police and the 170 other forces that use stun guns now know that they are not to be hauled out to tame insolent teenagers, annoying drunks or passive resisters. Police also know it is dangerous to repeatedly zap people. And that medical help should be summoned.

It is no longer possible to argue that the risk is minimal. That alone should cut down on use.

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