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Friday, May 07, 2010

EDITORIAL: Mounties' rule should apply here

May 7, 2010
Winnipeg Free Press

A decision by RCMP to restrict the use of Tasers to situations in a person is harming or about to hurt someone is a reasonable response to the worrisome creep in usage of the weapon. The stun gun no longer deserves the reputation nor the manufacturer's assurances that it is safe to use on just about everyone.

The use of force policy has been changed by the national police force to make it clear that a Taser is to be used only when an officer or someone else is under threat of physical harm. This tightens up an increasingly relaxed approach that saw the stun gun, the use of which fell between the baton and the firearm, become the favoured police weapon in confrontations. It allowed officers to restrain or gain compliance of individuals who may physically resist, resulting in injury. But the inquiry into the Taser-related death in 2007 of Polish traveller Robert Dzienkanski concluded that this operating procedure is risky, and medical evidence was growing that a stun gun could cause or contribute to death.

Bowing to the evidence, Taser's manufacturer last year revised its operating manual, instructing that the gun's probes be fired to hit the lower torso, avoiding the chest. Animal studies have shown that the electric shock across a heart could affect its function.

The Winnipeg Police Service has adopted some of the advice of inquiry commissioner Thomas Braidwood, but the force rejected adopting the Mountie's rule to restrict use of the Taser to people causing or about to cause bodily harm. Officers often must react instantly to dynamic circumstances and narrowing the use of force policy further was seen as too tightly tying the hands of police.

Statistics to 2008 indicated that the Winnipeg police were not part of the national trend of Taser usage creep. But the wording of the WPS's policy gives officers wider discretion in using a Taser, which can be used on those who are "actively aggressive or violent," according to a spokesman. The term "aggressive" is open to interpretation. It could describe someone who is verbally hostile or thrashing about, or someone with a weapon advancing on an officer or another person. In contrast, the Mounties' new standard restricts the stun gun's use to someone who is "causing bodily harm" or will "imminently" lash out.

The RCMP and other municipal forces have moved to tighten training and policies on Tasers, recognizing the risk that is carried by the massive jolt delivered to a person's body. Winnipeg police policy ought to reflect that, too.

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