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Thursday, April 09, 2009

EDITORIAL: Public outcry led to taser policy change

April 9, 2009
Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

RCMP complaints commissioner Paul Kennedy makes a telling point in his final report, issued Monday, reviewing Taser use on the national police force.

Deployment of the stun gun was way down in 2008, compared to a year earlier, according to Mr. Kennedy’s statistics. The number of incidents in which Mounties drew a Taser, whether the weapon was fired or not, dropped by 30 per cent, from 1,583 to 1,106. Likewise, the number of people who were Tasered also fell, from 1,135 to 563.

Those numbers represent a "systematic shift" in usage by officers in the field, said Mr. Kennedy. The reason, however, was likely not due to changes in RCMP policy or training, he concluded, but instead to more "self-restraint" by Mounties who, stung by public outrage over incidents like Robert Dziekanski’s death at Vancouver airport in 2007, cut back on their casual, inappropriate use of the stun gun.

The inference is clearly that previously, Tasers were being heavily overused, often in the wrong circumstances.

Mr. Kennedy applauds the RCMP for making commendable progress on 22 recommendations from his two interim reports. Still, the head of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP remains "concerned" about deficiencies in the force’s new Taser policy, statistical monitoring of usage and the need to curtail deployment in situations involving young or mentally ill people.

These are all legitimate issues the RCMP needs to confront. But the report also highlights perhaps the Mounties’ biggest challenge: regaining public trust lost in the continuing fallout over the disgraceful actions of the four officers involved in Mr. Dziekanski’s death – both at the time and subsequently, in attempts to mischaracterize what occurred.

For example, Mr. Kennedy said there was "reason to be suspicious" when more than half of RCMP officers who deployed Tasers claimed use of the weapon meant lethal force – i.e., a service revolver – became unnecessary. Unbelievably, some cases apparently involved people who were suicidal.

"It is hard to fathom circumstances under which suicidal subjects, bent on injuring themselves, would be killed," Mr. Kennedy noted drily.

Growing public mistrust has also not been helped by comments like those of RCMP Commissioner William Elliot, who, talking about the Dziekanski case, recently said that most Canadians don’t understand the pressures police are under. Perhaps not. That, however, doesn’t absolve the officers involved of misrepresenting what happened.

Here’s what would help: Put Taser cams on all police stun weapons.

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