RCMP softened Taser-use restrictions - New research suggests more shots raise likelihood of causing death
'If one ping-pong ball hit to the head does not kill you, 1,000 probably cannot either.'
"It is a linear relationship: the more you are exposed — if you double the exposure, you double the risk of death." —Pierre Savard, biomedical engineer at Montreal's École Polytechnique who specializes in effects of electricity on the heart
March 25, 2009
In response to national anger at the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski in the Vancouver airport, the RCMP was urged to curb multiple Taser use by its officers — but instead deleted an existing restriction from its stun-gun policy.
CBC News has learned that on Feb. 3, 2009, two sentences were erased from the main document that guides officers' actions — the first limiting Taser usage to one shot and no more than 20 seconds at a time, and the second requiring officers to warn suspects before deploying a stun gun.
"They have in fact not placed stricter guidelines on the multiple usage of the Taser; they've in fact removed the ban on multiple use in their new guidelines," said Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, who chaired a parliamentary committee that reviewed RCMP Taser use.
"And that is absolutely reprehensible, it's unacceptable, it's retrogressive — it's actually moving backwards."
The RCMP's policy change comes at a time when new independent research has emerged suggesting that chance of death from stun guns rises with each exposure, contrary to claims by the largest stun-gun manufacturer and police forces using the devices.
"It is a linear relationship: the more you are exposed — if you double the exposure, you double the risk of death," Pierre Savard, a biomedical engineer at Montreal's École Polytechnique who specializes in effects of electricity on the heart, told CBC News.
Savard studied statistics on more than 300 Taser-related deaths compiled by Amnesty International and results from 3,200 RCMP Taser deployments amassed by CBC/Radio-Canada and the Canadian Press.
That electrical current, says Savard, increases the heart rate and can directly affect the cardiac rhythm. "There are plausible mechanisms that can relate the Taser itself to death," said Savard.
A direct link between Tasers and death cannot yet be established, says Savard, until there are enough deaths for such analysis. He notes as an example that it wasn't immediately possible to link lung cancer to smoking when mass cigarette use first began.
Dziekanski hit by stun gun for 31 seconds
The Arizona-based Taser International maintains that its stun guns don't affect the heart and several zaps have no more effect on your health than one.
It points out that thousands of people have survived stun guns and compares the weapon's cycles to hollow ping pong balls: "If one ping-pong ball hit to the head does not kill you, 1,000 probably cannot either."
Based on his findings, however, Savard believes police forces should limit exposure to one or two shocks and not more than 20 seconds in total.
RCMP Corp. Gregg Gillis, a use-of-force trainer in B.C., denies the sentences were removed due to legal concerns. He says the force never had an outright ban on using the weapon more than once and instead allowed the situation dictate the use.
The restriction written in the 2005 policy was based on older research, since proven wrong, about electrical weapons impairing breathing, said Gillis.
"We said be cautious about the use of multiple exposures, because we're not sure what the outcome might be from that, because there wasn't clear medical research that spoke to that issue."
Use of Tasers by the RCMP and other police forces has come under intense scrutiny since Dziekanski's death on Oct. 14, 2007, in the arrivals area of the Vancouver International Airport.
A bystander's amateur video captured Dziekanski's final moments, allowing officials and people around the world to witness the encounter between him and the four RCMP officers.
Committee pushed for restrictions
The video reveals that RCMP Const. Kwesi Millington deployed the Taser on Dziekanski five times, for a total of 31 seconds in the span of a minute. At the Braidwood inquiry, Millington testified he feared for the officers' safety after Dziekanski grabbed a stapler. Dziekanski clearly falls to the floor in the video, taped by Paul Pritchard, but the constable uses the stun gun four more times. After learning that her son had been shocked five times with a Taser, Zofia Cisowski told CBC News that she wondered why police use Tasers at all. "They say they are human being[s] but who was my son? Also a human being," she said.
The House of Commons public safety and national security committee was among a handful of groups to investigate in the months that followed. In a report released in mid-June of 2008, the group, representing politicians of all stripes, called the RCMP's policy too permissive and pointed out weaknesses in officer training.
Most importantly, the committee called for the force to put "clear restrictions" on officers discharging stun guns multiple times and recommended they limit use to cases where the suspect is combative or poses a "risk of death and grievous bodily harm."
And if the Mounties weren't willing to do so by mid-December, the committee threatened to seek a moratorium on their use of the weapons. Eight months after the committee's report, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott told the committee that the force had introduced a revised Taser policy back in June 2008.
"I believe the facts are we have made significant changes in response to the committee's report and to respond to the recommendations," Elliott told the parliamentary committee on Feb. 12, 2009. "We have taken steps to restrict its use."
The policy added recognition that a stun gun could cause death, especially for "acutely agitated" individuals, and still informed officers that multiple or continuous shocks may be hazardous.
But the RCMP eliminated a line prohibiting officers from shocking someone more than once.
The old policy, in place since 2005, had stated: "Multiple deployment or continuous cycling of the [Conducted Energy Weapons] may be hazardous to a subject. Unless situational factors dictate otherwise … do not cycle the CEW repeatedly, nor more than 15-20 seconds at a time against a subject."
RCMP out of touch: Dosanjh
In another section, the policy instructed officers to issue a warning before using a Taser. "Police, stop or you will be hit with 50,000 volts of electricity!"
Dosanjh, the Liberal MP who chaired the parliamentary committee, was outraged by the removal of the two sentences. "The public safety minister has an obligation to call Mr. Elliott into his office and say, 'What are you doing? Why are you not levelling with Canadians?' " said Dosanjh. "'Why are you not levelling with the House of Commons committee that made recommendations?'"
He said the RCMP's upper echelons appear to be out of touch with Canadians' views on Taser use and the force is in need of an overhaul. "They don't understand the depth of the anger that Canadians feel about the Taser."
Some also fear such policy changes could serve to protect the RCMP in future cases of Taser-related deaths.
"It could weaken the case of a victim if indeed the policies of the RCMP are more permissible than they were at the time of Robert Dziekanski's death," said Don Rosenbloom, the lawyer representing the Polish government at the Braidwood inquiry.
RCMP trainer Gillis cited two studies for making the force's policy change: one examining police officers who received one five-second shock; and another paid for by Taser International on the effects of repeated stuns on breathing.
And Gillis insists that officers are hearing the message on how dangerous multiple stun-gun use can be during training.
In fact, three of the officers involved in the Dziekanski case were trained by Gillis three months before the death, but appeared unclear on the policy during testimony at the Braidwood inquiry.
Two of the officers, Millington and Const. Bill Bentley, couldn't recall why the policy on multiple Taser use was adopted.
And in fact, the study cited by Elliott to the parliamentary committee to defend the safety of Tasers, done by a U.S. government agency, the National Institute of Justice, questions multiple stun-gun use.
While it found stun-gun exposure is safe in most cases, it clearly stated that the risk of death following repeated or continuous Taser exposure is still unknown.
"Law enforcement should be aware that the associated risks are unknown. Therefore, caution is urged in using multiple activations of CED as a mean to accomplish subdual."
An analysis of RCMP stun gun reports by CBC and the Canadian Press found that 45 per cent of cases involved an officer firing the stun gun more than once.
As for deleting the verbal warning officers are to give suspects, Gillis said it was taken out due to accuracy.
Tasers don't conduct 50,000 volts of electricity, he says, noting that the weapon's electrical impact is measured in current, the rate of the flow of electrons, rather than voltage, the amount of force driving the flow.
Gillis said officers are generally trained to use appropriate warnings to de-escalate situations, even though the policy no longer requires it.
In Dziekanski's case, no warning was issued by Const. Kwesi Millington before the first of five stun-gun deployments.
For more on this story, watch The National Wednesday at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET/PT on CBC Newsworld and at 10 p.m. local time on CBC Television and 10:30 p.m. NT.
RCMP operational manual on conducted energy weapons (as amended Feb. 2, 2009)
RCMP operational manual on conducted energy weapons (cached version from before Feb. 2, 2009)
March 25, 2009
This is to follow up on your request for an interview today with me and your subsequent telephone conversation with Supt. Tim Cogan. We understand you wanted to ask about your perception that there is a discrepancy between the RCMP’s revised policy on Conducted Energy Weapons and statements I made to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security (SECU) on February 12, 2009. Unfortunately I am not available to be interviewed.
In your conversation with Supt. Cogan, you referenced my opening remarks to SECU where I addressed the second recommendation of the Standing Committee’s June 2008 Report and indicated “The RCMP’s revised CEW policy restricts the use of CEWs and specifically warns of the hazards of multiple deployment or continuous cycling of the CEW.”
I stand by this statement. It refers to the two aspects of the recommendation in question, relating to usage guidelines more broadly and multiple discharges.
The revised RCMP policy does restrict the use of CEWs. Section 3. 1. 1 of the revised Operational Manual (O.M.) states: “The CEW must only be used in accordance with CEW training, the principles of the Incident Management/Intervention Model (IM/IM) and in response to a threat to officer or public safety as determined by a member’s assessment of the totality of the circumstances being encountered. NOTE: Member’s actions must be reasonable and the force used must be necessary in the circumstances.”
With respect to the second aspect of the recommendation, RCMP policy includes a warning to Members that: “Multiple deployment or continuous cycling of the CEW may be hazardous to a subject.” (O.M. 3. 1. 3).
The new policy further provides that: “Acutely agitated or delirious persons may be at a high risk of death. If an individual is in an acutely agitated or delirious state, and whenever possible when responding to reports of violent individuals, request the assistance of emergency medical services. If possible bring medical assistance to the scene.” (O.M. 3. 1. 4)
The policy also directs members to make every effort to “take control of the subject as soon as possible following deployment of a CEW, and if possible during the CEW deployment”. The new policy also clearly states that “the CEW is not intended as a restraint device” (O.M. 3. 1. 5).
The statements I made to the Standing Committee are completely consistent with the policy.I trust this clarifies any misunderstanding you may have had about the RCMP’s revised CEW policy and my statements to the Standing Committee.