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Saturday, April 25, 2009

EDITORIAL: RCMP's Taser loopholes

April 25, 2009
Toronto Star

Not three months ago, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner William Elliott assured Parliament that the Mounties were curbing the use of Tasers, following a public outcry over Robert Dziekanski, who died after being stunned repeatedly at Vancouver airport.

"We have taken steps to restrict its use," Elliott advised the House of Commons public safety committee on Feb 12. If so, it is hard to see.

In fact the RCMP's new policy, issued on Feb. 3 nine days before Elliott's appearance, had dropped requirements that were designed to curb stun gun use. This week, called back to address the discrepancy, Elliott was hard-pressed to justify the changes as an improvement.

Under the old policy, RCMP officers were required to issue a warning, where feasible: "Police, stop or you will be hit with 50,000 volts of electricity." There's no such obligation under the new policy.

Under the old policy use was sharply limited. "Unless situational factors dictate otherwise, do not cycle the CEW (Conducted Energy Weapon) repeatedly, nor more than 15-20 seconds at a time against a subject." That, too, has been scrapped. The new policy merely advises that multiple or continuous stunning "may be hazardous to a subject."

Finally while the new policy says the guns are "not intended as a restraint device," there's no prohibition on using them to subdue unruly suspects who don't pose a serious threat to the police or public.

Far from "restricting" use, the new approach seems more tolerant.

Elliott still insists that, "overall," RCMP policy is more restrictive. Officers are more aware of risks, are better trained and better supervised. Certainly, they are using stun guns less often, after the beating the force has taken at the Dziekanski inquiry. And the force will tell the inquiry that "there are things that they would do differently," Elliott told the Star's Tonda MacCharles this week. That's good.

But the fact remains that RCMP policy is written in terms broad enough to legitimize stun gun use under almost any circumstances. That in itself is a concern.

Stun guns can put some people "at a high risk of death," as the RCMP now officially acknowledges. Given that risk, the force should require officers to issue a warning, except in dire circumstances. The RCMP should prohibit stun gun use except in cases of severe threat to life and limb. A Canadian Press analysis from 2002 to 2005 found that three in four suspects zapped weren't even armed. There should be a prohibition on using the guns as a restraint. And multiple jolts must be strongly discouraged, along with continuous jolting.

No one suggests Canada's police are out of control. They answered more than 3 million calls for help in 2007 and made 176,000 arrests, using stun guns in only a small fraction of cases. But 25 people have died in Canada after being jolted, Amnesty International reports. And police have reportedly zapped a balky teenage girl in a jail cell, a senior who tried to dodge a parking ticket and a heart patient in hospital.

We need real restrictions on stun gun use, to prevent "usage creep," not empty assurances that all is well. It isn't. And if the police won't adopt tough, common standards, government should impose them.

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