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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Truth not tasers weighs in on the RCMP announcement

On February 12, 2009, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) announced new rules of engagement for the use of tasers in Canada, in response to a demand by the Canadian House of Commons Public Safety and National Security Committee that they reign in their use of these weapons. These new rules of engagement marked the first time that a Canadian police force has publicly acknowledged that tasers may pose a fatal risk.

We here at Truth not Tasers have been publicly acknowledging that tasers have the potential to be lethal for years. So, I was blown away when the police themselves finally admitted they agree. Even though RCMP Commissioner William Elliott didn't exactly come right out and say that tasers kill people, he did concede that "shortly after a Taser was deployed, individuals died." I'd say that comes pretty close.

Strangely enough, these new and improved rules of engagement are simply those under which tasers were supposed to have been initially approved for use in this country. However, as time passed, and while no one was really looking (save for a very few people like us), “usage creep” entered stage left and things went sideways in a major way. If the RCMP and police across the country have not been operating under these rules – and Canadians are slowly coming to realize that in fact they haven’t been – how the hell have we allowed them to get away with it for so long?? And what justice exists for those families who have lost a loved one who would likely still be alive had it not been deemed “necessary" to taser them?

For example, I am confident that had police been operating under these rules the night my brother Robert Bagnell died in June 2004, they would have had no reason to taser him and he would likely be alive today. His was a classic case of non-combative resistance. He was on his back, on a washroom floor – all 136 pounds of him – and posed no credible threat of death or grievous bodily harm to the 13 Vancouver Police officers in attendance. There were no members of the public present. The police would never have considered shooting Bob with a gun that night, but it was easy and convenient to pull out their trusty “non-lethal” (yes, police and the manufacturer were still calling them non-lethal back then) tasers.

And, in fact, I believe that the majority of Canadian men who have died would in all likelihood still be alive today had they not been tasered. So few of them posed a true, credible threat to anyone, save perhaps to themselves. Which is something that disturbs me about the new “rules”: what will constitute “enough” threat to a person’s own self?

From where I sit, these rules still rely far too much on officer discretion and do not come nearly close enough to making the taser the last resort before lethal force. And all the training in the world isn’t going to address that, one officer’s perception and experience being another officer’s reality. Editorial after editorial – even RCMP Complaints Commissioner Paul Kennedy – has cautioned that the rules are still too broad and vague. I agree wholeheartedly.

In the days since the announcement, police agencies across the country, including the RCMP’s own Sgt. Scott Warren, chairman of the officer safety committee, have come out madly swinging in defence against making any (gasp!) changes to their taser policies. See "What's wrong with this picture? And who's keeping track?" If anyone is awake enough to enforce it, police forces (and transit cops, etc.) across the country, will have no choice but to follow suit.

Otherwise, now that our federal police force has publicly acknowledged that the taser is potentially lethal, if it is used “inappropriately” and where bullets would never be an option and a person dies, what will that be called and how will it be handled?

RCMP Complaints Commissioner Paul Kennedy has undertaken to review the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the 10 men who were tasered by the RCMP and subsequently died. No one has yet identified who, if anyone, will be responsible to do the same for those 17 Canadians whose deaths did not involve the RCMP. Namely, Ronald Perry, Roman Andreichikov, Peter Lamonday, Robert Bagnell, Jerry Knight, Samuel Truscott, James Foldi, Alesandro Fiacco, James Barber, Claudio Castagnetta, Quilem Registre, Howard Hyde, Jeffrey Marreel, Michael Langan, Sean Reilly, Trevor Grimolfson and Gordon Walker Bowe.

Another important next step will be to unravel the incestuous relationship that exists between Canadian law enforcement (and its research arms) and the very rich and powerful - and endlessly litigious - Taser International. This enormously inappropriate alliance reeks of conflict of interest and it has been allowed to fester and flourish for many years beyond its best-by date. The necessity of Taser International’s attendance, in person or representatively, around and at Canadian inquests and inquiries into taser-related deaths must also be microscopically examined.

I hope that the RCMP’s policy changes will give medical examiners everywhere something new to work with. Medical examiners and coroners have been under tremendous pressure from police, “excited delirium” proponents and the weapon's manufacturer, Taser International, to “reverse and prevent medical rulings that Tasers contributed to someone's death.” The President of the National Association of Medical Examiners in the United States has said in more ways than one that “it is dangerously close to intimidation.”

Something also needs to be done about police using tasers on youth and senior citizens. C’mon – let's get REAL!

I have never been here for credit or accolades. But I do like to think that I and others, including the Canadian media, have played a critical role in getting us to where we are today. There is no doubt in my mind that we have collectively added to the pressure for needed change. I am grateful for my fellow travellers (most notably fellow blogger Excited-Delirium), who have joined me on this journey.

What a long, strange trip it's been. Unfortunately, it’s a trip that isn't over yet. I, for one, won't be riding off into the sunset until I and my family are satisfied that all we could do we have done.

"Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us." (Jerry Garcia, The Grateful Dead)

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