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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

EDITORIAL: RCMP's Taser short-circuit

February 17, 2009
Kingston Whig-Standard

The optics have been bad for the RCMP at the judicial inquiry looking into the posttasering death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski.

Witnesses have helped recreate the scene of Oct. 14, 2007 at the Vancouver airport in which four police officers executed a takedown on the agitated man and shocked him five times.

The RCMP were called in when the behaviour of the non-English-speaking Dziekanski, trapped in the airport for nearly 10 hours, turned erratic.

But when they arrived, the officers seemed unwilling to try to negotiate with Dziekanski, moving quickly - within 20 seconds - to the multiple taserings and pinning him to the floor in an aggressive manner.

As these observations roll out almost daily at the inquiry, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott made a sudden and dramatic announcement on Thursday about a change in the force's policy on taser use.

Most notably, the new training policy will indicate that "there are risks associated with the deployment of the device and emphasize that those risks include the risk of death, particularly for acutely agitated individuals."

There are two essential problems with this message.

First, it's difficult to fathom the RCMP's crass attempt at damage control.

The four RCMP officers have yet to testify at the hearing. Until they do, we won't get the full picture of what transpired that night in 2007 and why they acted as they did.

But to make the policy announcement at this time can't help but produce the distinct impression that the RCMP are trying to counter the negative case being built against the force and these individual officers.

Second, this change in policy is based on as little sound scientific and medical knowledge as the frequent claims made about the weapon itself.

Dziekanski's is not the first recorded case of an "agitated" person being tasered and then dying afterward. Police forces and the manufacturer have been confronted with this information time and again, but refused to allow any correlation to be drawn between use and death.

So why now? For the RCMP, clearly because of the bad press and the inquiry's disturbing testimony.

What policy change may be announced next? That taserings will be limited to four per person? Or three? Two? Or one?

Electronic stun guns have been touted for years as being safe and less harmful than guns when subduing people. It would be helpful to see statistics indicating the rate at which police officers shot people with firearms prior to being issued tasers and the rate afterward. Have Tasers reduced the deadly use of force by police departments? Let's see some proof.

Canadians are concerned that these weapons are being used less and less discriminately - over-used, in fact - and that the Dziekanski death is proof.

Dziekanski appeared agitated. He had smashed and banged some things. He was holding a stapler when confronted by the officers.

Was he a reasonable candidate for tasering? Would he be tomorrow? That still isn't clear, even after last week's announcement.

The RCMP shift is smoke and mirrors - a small concession in the absence of real knowledge and understanding of what these weapons may actually do to people like Robert Dziekanski.

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