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Monday, February 16, 2009

RCMP's Taser policy shockingly unclear

February 16, 2009
Iain Hunter
Special to Times Colonist

The RCMP's commissioner-in-a-suit seems to have had some second thoughts about the use, by his men and women, of Tasers.

William Elliott has revealed that since last June Mounties have been under instructions to use the zappers only when "necessary" in the face of threats to the safety of members of the force or members of the public.

After denying for so long, as other law enforcement agencies in other parts of the world have denied, that Tasers can kill, Elliott has conceded that there have been incidents "where shortly after a Taser was deployed, individuals died."

Yes, and there have been incidents where shortly after a gun was deployed, individuals died. The commissioner could have been a little more forthcoming.

Police and public medical examiners across North America are fond of saying that people suffering "excited delirium" might be harmed more, even die, when hit by the 50,000 volts that the device is supposed to deliver, but sometimes, it's reported, exceeds.

The American Medical Association doesn't recognize the term; a House of Commons committee, the RCMP's public complaints commissioner and others have said it's not acceptable.

Now, Elliott says, Mounties are directed to assess the "potential risks" of jolting people, especially those who are "acutely agitated." There's no question that Robert Dziekanski, whose weapon of choice was a stapler in his fatal confrontation with Mounties at Vancouver International Airport, was acutely agitated.

We may never know whether the cause of his death was his being hit by a Taser five times or being used as a trampoline by those officers who don't seem to have assessed very much. It seems to me more than the use of Tasers deserves review.

And I don't know how much time there is for the assessment that is now required before a Taser is deployed. I don't know how young members of the force are supposed to recognize the symptoms of suspects or nuisances in the heat of the moment, and decide to choose a nightstick or their fists instead.

The symptoms of what police call excited delirium, according to the medical examiner in the case of a man killed after being zapped by a Taser in Tampa Bay, Fla., last year, are agitation, elevated heart rate, incoherence, bizarre behaviour, high pain tolerance and a compulsion to break glass.

Some of those symptoms might be evident, as they were in Dziekanski's case and might have saved his life under the new RCMP policy, but there isn't always time for cops to run through a medical checklist before deciding what action is "necessary" or "reasonable."

Paul Kennedy, the force's complaints commissioner, thinks some of the wording of the policy is still "very, very broad and vague" and might not prevent inappropriate use of the weapon.

And the new policy doesn't seem to sit too well with members of the force who have to follow it. Sgt. Scott Warren, chairman of the RCMP's officer safety committee, has said in a television interview that the commissioner "is incorrect to say we wouldn't use them again for actively resistant people."

I hope Warren's not saying that an 82-year-old heart patient in a hospital bed, a mentally ill teenager in a jail cell or a senior protesting a parking ticket will still be considered "actively resistant" and could still get zapped as they have been in Canada.

Police forces in Britain are distributing Tasers, formerly reserved for specially trained officers, to traffic cops.

The wider these nasty things are spread the likelier it is that they'll be used too often, too easily -- and if they come, so will bean bag guns that fire pouches of lead shot, or devices that send out temporarily blinding laser beams or sticky foam, or substances that cloud people's minds.

A cop's choice used to be between the whistle, the truncheon or the gun. A lot of the people he or she has to confront today aren't petty criminals. Some of them are killers; all of them are unpredictable.

We should credit our police for looking for new ways to deal with these people without killing them. But they must try harder.

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