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Monday, April 26, 2010

New Brunswick Police divided on use of Taser cams

Tasers with cameras attached to them to record what happens when the weapons are deployed have made their way to New Brunswick.

But there is no uniform policy on the use of Taser cams - or stun guns - in the province.

The Telegraph-Journal has learned that at least one of the province's municipal police forces - Edmundston - has shelved the controversial weapons, while others have no plans to purchase them as a result of the public debate over their safety.

The Saint John and Fredericton police forces have been using the Taser cams for more than two years.

But a poll of the other municipal and regional police forces in New Brunswick found a different story in each community.

The Rothesay police detachment uses the stun guns but without the camera attachment. Grand Falls and Bathurst don't use Tasers at all.

A Bathurst police spokeswoman indicated the force is apprehensive about purchasing Tasers until a uniform policy on their use comes into place.

The unwillingness to use the devices stems directly from the death of air passenger Robert Dziekanski, according to Edmundston Deputy Police Chief Percy Picard.

"We do have the Taser with the camera attached, we have three, but they are not in use right now," Picard said. "We took them off the patrol division once everything with the Dziekanski case happened.

"We are waiting for the province and the New Brunswick police chiefs to come out with a policy and approach to their use."

Dziekanski, en route to British Columbia from Poland to join his mother, Zofia Cisowski, died in October 2007 after being subdued by a Mountie's Taser at the Vancouver airport.

A video of the confrontation, filmed by a fellow passenger, showed an agitated and disoriented Dziekanski zapped five times. It was seen by millions of people and triggered public outrage and widespread re-examination of stun gun use.

The RCMP recently apologized to Cisowski and agreed to a financial settlement.

Picard said there is a sense of uneasiness by police officers around the use of stun guns.

"We are also currently in search for more training," Picard said. "It's another big issue."

The Woodstock Police Force has no plans to purchase Tasers, but would do so only if a camera is attached.

"We're not looking at (acquiring Tasers for use by the police force) in the near future," said Woodstock Police Chief Dana Collicott. "If at some point down the road we do look at outfitting our officers, we would go with the ones with the cameras.

"They record what is taking place at the time the Taser is used and would have some added evidentiary value for sure."

A RCMP complaints commission report on the Dziekanski case found there would have been "a clear benefit" to video footage capturing the events from the officers' perspectives.

A report recently released by Liberal senators also recommended that RCMP officers be equipped with miniature cameras to enhance transparency for both officers and citizens, protecting both sides from accusations of improper behaviour.

In New Brunswick, there is nothing mandating the use of Taser cams.

"At this point, there has been no move to make anything a requirement," said Barry MacKnight, president of the New Brunswick Association of Chiefs of Police.

"It's left to the individual agencies."

MacKnight said the association's use of force policy - rules for all of the province's police forces - was rewritten in 2007 to include specifics on the use of Tasers. But there have been no policy discussions on mandating cameras.

A spokesman for Taser International, the manufacturer of the Taser cam, said the camera device was created to provide heightened accountability.

"Certainly we are no stranger to controversy in Canada, but I think what the Taser cam does is it adds merit to the seriousness of what law enforcement thinks about the deployment of Tasers," said Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle in a phone interview from the company's Scottsdale, Arizona offices.

"And that is that they do require accountability."

Taser cams have been in use since May 2003, mostly in the United States. Roughly 40,000 Taser cams are used by nearly 2,000 police agencies in 44 countries worldwide.

"People tend to behave better when they are on video tape, and it works both ways because the officers perform better as well," Tuttle said. "The Taser cam provides another layer of comfort for law enforcement agencies, but it is also a comfort to the public."

Codiac RCMP in Moncton are currently part of a national pilot project, along with the RCMP in Kelowna, B.C., testing the Taser cam and a second type of camera that attaches to an officer's belt radio.

Both options record audio and video. The Taser cam also includes a computer chip that records the time, date and duration of each Taser deployment.

"The RCMP continually reviews its policies and procedures to ensure best practices are being utilized by RCMP members," said Const. Chantal Farrah, media relations officer for both the Codiac RCMP and New Brunswick's J Division.

"This includes research of new technology, which is sometimes extended to pilot testing, if it is deemed to be a potential benefit to RCMP members in providing security to the Canadian public."

The cameras will be used in the field by Codiac RCMP by the end of June with analysis of the recordings and feedback from the members, according to Farrah.

Ontario Community Safety Minister Rick Bartolucci said last week he is considering making cameras mandatory with Tasers.

The Police Association of Ontario has voiced its concern with the move, its president saying he sees little use for the cameras currently on the market because they provide a limited view of an incident.

Both federal and provincial governments have been working on national standards for stun gun use, but Ontario moved ahead with its own plan earlier this month.

Ontario has promised tighter rules around the use of stun guns by police, mainly against pregnant women and children, and promised to amend provincial guidelines to include rules about deployment of the guns as well as standardized training.

The New Brunswick Department of Public Safety declined to take a position on whether cameras are needed to record Taser use. The province maintains it is a decision to be made by the New Brunswick Association of Chiefs of Police.

MacKnight, who is also the Fredericton police chief, would not speculate on future discussions to make the cameras mandatory.

"We have not dealt with this issue from a policy perspective; we have only dealt with the general use of force policy on the use of conductive energy devices," he said.

"As far as the Fredericton Police Force is concerned, we have always had Taser cams as soon as we were operational with Tasers on the street.

"We see it as a very positive way to capture evidence of very critical incidents - when officers are resorting to the use of force in order to carry out their duties."

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