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Thursday, August 06, 2009

EDITORIAL: Lessons learned on Tasers

August 6, 2009
Edmonton Journal

Long before the death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport, serious questions surrounded the use of Tasers by Canadian law enforcement officers.

Sadly, it took a deadly international incident to finally embarrass government officials into action. We might be forgiven for speculating darkly on what an investigation would have looked like had the multiple Taser blasts fired by RCMP on the Polish immigrant not been captured on video by a bystander.

The report of B. C.'s independent commission into the affair, headed by Thomas Braidwood, was released July 23. It criticized that province for its lack of a cogent Taser policy and made no fewer than 19 recommendations. They centred on limiting the use of conducted energy weapons including Tasers to "truly criminal offences."

To its credit, Alberta has been quick off the Braidwood mark by unveiling tougher rules here. The 11-page document tendered by Solicitor General and Minister for Public Safety Fred Lindsay says police forces in Alberta must hew to the regulations or face having their CEWs taken away. They may be used only "when there is a real likelihood of injury to the officer, subject, or bystanders."

There will be those who say the new regulations don't go far enough, and hope Ottawa steps in with uniform standards for all police forces in Canada, using its Criminal Code jurisdiction regulating firearms. Certainly, the single fact that even Taser Inc. admits to a failure rate of around five per cent might raise flags, since the Canadian Standards Association would never sanction the sale of imported toasters or electric razors with that dubious track record.

National action could be a reasonable possibility. In the meantime, though, the Alberta government deserves respect for its timely action. In the past, provincial guidelines allowed constables to unleash their Tasers when faced with "actual or threatened resistance to lawful arrest," a category wide enough to drive a tank through.

We have come a long distance from the days when Edmonton officers used the device to wake up drunks. City police say their current guidelines are already in step with the latest provincial regulations. The RCMP has announced it has imposed similar restrictions.

The Taser was initially thought to be a humane and effective way for brave, sensible law enforcement professionals to neutralize "bad guys" with relative impunity. With the subsequent deaths of 25 people in Canada and more than 300 fatalities in the U. S., we've discovered that is simply not the case.

Limiting its use to extreme cases has been the hard lesson learned. Alberta stands at the forefront of that recognition, which is always where we want to be.

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