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.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Friday, February 13, 2009
February 13, 2009