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Saturday, February 21, 2009

EDITORIAL: Reining in the use of Tasers

February 21, 2009
Vancouver Sun

It was only one sentence in the middle of RCMP Commissioner Doug Elliott's three-page address to the Commons' standing committee on public safety and national security, but it rightly made headlines across the country:

"The RCMP's revised [Taser] policy underscores that there are risks associated with the deployment of the device and emphasizes that those risks include the risk of death, particularly for acutely agitated individuals."

This is significant, because it's the first time a Canadian police force has admitted that death is one of the risks of Taser use, even though more than 20 people in Canada have died after being Tasered.

In recognition of this, Elliott also announced that the RCMP has changed its policy on Taser use. Most significantly, all members of the RCMP have been instructed that Tasers "must only be used where it is necessary to do so in the circumstances of threats to officer or public safety."

While an apparent improvement over previous policy, which sanctioned the use of Tasers when, for example, it was deemed necessary to handcuff resistant suspects, this wording is unfortunately vague.

It's not entirely clear what would constitute a threat to the safety of officers and the public, and it's even less clear what the force means by "necessary." This leaves much room for interpretation -- it could, for instance, easily be interpreted as permitting the Tasering of someone in Robert Dziekanski's position -- and hence could have little impact on the practice of using Tasers. That said, the new wording would make it extremely difficult for officers to justify using a Taser on an elderly man in a hospital bed, as has happened.

Elliott also said the RCMP manual would no longer use the term "excited delirium," a good move since excited delirium is not recognized by the medical profession. Instead, police use it to refer to those experiencing extreme agitation, often under the influence of drugs, and a number of people police believe to have been in this state have been Tasered. Yet people in a drug-induced, extremely agitated state are, of course, at greater risk of death.

So the new policy seems a step in the right direction, even if it's not as big a step as many would like.

Among other changes, Elliott noted that while not prohibiting multiple Taser use on one suspect, the new policy will provide "clear guidelines" and "restrictions" for multiple discharges.

It is unfortunate these changes took so long, especially since some tragedies might have been avoided. But the RCMP has at least shown that it is willing to make changes, which should help protect both officers and the public.

Now we need to see other police forces, including the Vancouver Police Department, make similar changes, for the welfare of everyone.

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