You may have arrived here via a direct link to a specific post. To see the most recent posts, click HERE.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The RCMP rethinks the risks

February 13, 2009
Globe and Mail

The RCMP has taken a brave step by acknowledging that taser use presents a "risk of death" to agitated individuals. Its new taser policy, apparently adopted last June but made public only yesterday by Commissioner William Elliott, is a sharp break with the force's previous thinking, and indeed that of the vast majority of police forces that use the 50,000-volt electric stun gun in North America.

No Canadian police force had ever publicly acknowledged that tasers pose a fatal risk. The admission changes everything, or should. Police have always insisted the taser is low-risk; it followed that it could be used in low-risk situations, justified by the specious argument that sometimes low-risk confrontations escalate to high-risk ones. With the admission of fatal risks, there will have to be a certain threshold of danger before the RCMP can use the weapon.

There is some lack of clarity about where that threshold is set. The RCMP rejected a recommendation from the House of Commons Public Safety Committee that the taser be classed as an "impact weapon" authorized for use only when someone displays "assaultive behaviour" or poses a threat of death or grievous bodily harm. But Mr. Elliott told the committee that the new policy, explained to all RCMP members on June 18, is that the taser "must only be used where it is necessary to do so in circumstances of threats to officer or public safety." This is strange, contradictory wording. "Threats" is a soft word; "necessary" is a strong word. "Necessary" implies that all alternatives need to be considered first; it means, essentially, that there must be no other choice. If the weapon poses what Mr. Elliott called a "high risk of death" on an acutely agitated individual, then it should be used only when that individual presents a severe threat.

The proof of what the RCMP means by its new policy will be found in how it uses the taser. The force's latest statistics, from Jan. 1 to March 31 of last year, show 304 uses, but no reporting on threat levels except for the most extreme category, risk of death or grievous bodily harm, which accounted for just 17.4 per cent of cases. That is the time to use lethal force, not a taser, the report explicitly says. (Mr. Elliott was being disingenuous when he cited an incident where police tasered a man swinging an axe at his father, to explain to the committee how tasers save lives. Used inappropriately, he was saying, it works.)

The policy change is welcome evidence that the Mounties are not impervious to change. Yes, it took the needless taser death of a distressed, unarmed Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, on Oct. 14, 2007, at the Vancouver International Airport; it took a judicial inquiry, still in progress, into that death; it took critical reports from an independent RCMP watchdog; it took pressure from the Commons committee; and it took innumerable editorials across the country and other forms of public protest. But the RCMP deserves credit for making the change.

This is a considerable step forward that is bound, eventually, to be felt at other police forces. It reduces the likelihood that there will be another incident like the one in which Robert Dziekanski was killed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I find nothing "brave" about the announcement of the RCMP's NEW taser policy on the use of tasers and they sure took their time doing it. They had to appease the public or they were faced with a moratorium. And now they admit that these devices could possibly contribute to death after repeated tasering. Seems we have been telling them this for the past 4 1/2 years since our son Robert Bagnell died after being tasered to death in Vancouver. No one was listening...and all those who have died after being tasered...almost 400 in north America to date. And the NEW taser policy does nothing to change the possible tasering of children. Two 17 year olds have died in the past few months. I for one do not have much faith in the NEW taser policy..I believe it is just short of a white wash and we are going to see use creepage on the rise once again. Riki Bagnell