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Friday, February 13, 2009

National Post editorial board: RCMP holsters its zappers

February 13, 2009
National Post

RCMP Commissioner William Elliott revealed yesterday — and not a moment too soon — that the force has adopted new regulations on the use of Tasers. It is a welcome, if unnecessarily tardy, development that should reduce the abuse of the practical but overused police weapon.

Appearing before the Commons committee on public safety, Mr. Elliott said officers are now being told Tasers can cause death when used on “acutely agitated” suspects, should not be used repeatedly or on “continuous cycling” and should not be used on “resistant” individuals except in extreme circumstances.

Officers must immediately report each time the Taser is drawn, even if it is not used; every case must be reviewed by superiors in Ottawa, and each instance must be sent to the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP to produce quarterly and annual reports.

“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,” he said.

That’s nice to hear, but it has to be asked why it took the force so long to come around to the obvious conclusion. Tasers can fire an electric jolt of up to 50,000 volts. Although the company insists they are not lethal, at least 20 Canadians have died after being zapped, and their use has grown alarmingly among police. Documents obtained by Canwest News Service found RCMP use grew to 1,414 incidents in 2007, up from 1,119 in 2006 and just 597 in 2005.

It may be a coincidence that Mr. Elliott unveiled the changes in RCMP policy as an inquiry continues to reveal disturbing details about the death of Robert Dziekanski, the Polish man who died after being Tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver International Airport.

The inquiry, under commissioner Thomas Braidwood, has uncovered one miscue after another. Mr. Dziekanski spent 10 hours in the airport after a 24-hour journey from Poland, growing increasingly agitated as he sought to meet up with his mother, until a final confrontation with four RCMP officers in which he was Tasered five times.

Witnesses have testified of numerous opportunities to avert the tragedy, each of which was rejected in turn. An airport employee who spoke Polish and offered to translate was ignored. An emergency response team was just a few metres away, but wasn’t called, and supervisors won’t say why. An airline employee testified that she finally called 911 because Mr. Dziekanski was getting increasingly upset and “no one was coming to help.”

All this goes beyond the use of Tasers, but typifies a situation in which their use was becoming a convenient fallback for police seeking a quick end to unpleasant situations.

Tasers have been deployed against an 82-year-old heart patient lying in his hospital bed, a mentally ill teenager in a northern Ontario jail and a 68-year-old Kelowna man following an argument over a parking ticket.

Mr. Elliott said the RCMP now stresses the weapon should be used only in “reasonable” circumstances, in which the danger is great enough that the only alternative would be the use of a firearm. Police forces across Canada, which have been similarly slow to acknowledge their danger, should take their cue from the Mounties and make the use of Tasers once again a rarity.

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