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Thursday, May 06, 2010

EDITORIAL: Belated RCMP stun gun rules

May 6, 2010
The Toronto Star

Are police reaching for their stun guns too often? Baseball fans in Philadelphia, the “city of brotherly love,” think so. They roundly booed a cop who stunned Steve Consalvi after the 17-year-old dashed onto the field Monday waving a club fan towel.

Public concern about “usage creep” isn’t limited to the United States. Canadians were appalled when Robert Dziekanski died at the Vancouver airport in 2007 after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police stunned him repeatedly. And there have been other ugly incidents.

Given all this, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott did well to tighten the rules this week.

From now on the Mounties will use stun guns only if a person is “causing bodily harm” or if there are “reasonable grounds” to fear that he or she “will imminently” cause harm, the force says. This is a welcome narrowing of the rules, though it stops short of requiring a severe threat to life and limb. The previous, overly permissive rules set the bar at any “threat to officer or public safety.”

The new rules also require officers to issue a verbal warning first, when feasible. They caution officers generally to restrict jolts to 5 seconds or less and to avoid multiple jolts. And they point out that the stun gun is “not intended as a restraint device.”

With these changes the RCMP finally has a policy that reflects its own view that stun guns put some people “at a high risk of death.” Other police forces should pay heed.

Ontario Community Safety Minister Rick Bartolucci recently felt compelled to remind police that, “where possible,” the 50,000-volt weapons ought not to be used on the elderly, pregnant women, young children, and people in handcuffs, among others.

Welcome as the new RCMP rules are, Elliott is a late convert to prudence. As the Star noted in an editorial last year, on his watch the force brought in new rules on Feb. 3, 2009 that watered down aspects of a previous, tougher policy. The requirement to shout a warning was dropped. So were rules against multiple jolts and restricting jolts to 15-20 seconds.

Whatever caused the change of heart, it’s a good thing that the older, tougher rules have been reintroduced, and improved upon.

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