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Friday, June 25, 2010

RCMP Taser use drops, but mentally ill remain more-frequent targets

June 25, 2010
By Philip Ling, Canwest News Service

Use of the Taser by RCMP members in B.C. dropped by nearly half last year, but officers there are slightly more likely to use the weapon against young people than those elsewhere in the country, according to a new report by the force's independent watchdog.

According to the report, released Thursday by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, B.C. Mounties deployed their Tasers 109 times in 2009, down from 208 in 2008, a drop of 91 per cent.

The drop in Taser use was even greater nationwide, with deployments decreasing by more than half from 563 in 2008 to 276 in 2009.

Similar, though less dramatic, drops were seen in the number of times officers simply took the weapon out of their holster without firing it.

The commission expressed concern about reports of conducted energy weapon usage against youths aged 13 to 17, although the deployment for the age group essentially remained unchanged from 2008 at around five per cent.

The watchdog says Taser use involving youths was "proportionately more likely" in B.C., though such cases are still rare.

Youth cases where conducted-energy weapons were discharged were less likely to involve substance use, but much more likely to involve weapons.

The report notes that officers are Tasering those with mental-health problems "significantly" more than non-mental-health cases for the fourth straight year -- a statistic that is "worrisome" to the RCMP watchdog.

The commission's interim chairman, Ian McPhail, reported Thursday that officers deployed Tasers and other conducted energy weapons 49.6 per cent of the time after drawing them on mental health incidents, compared to 39.2 per cent for non-mental-health cases.

Mental-health cases represented almost one quarter of all deployments -- more than any other type of incident, such as assault, break-and-enter or domestic dispute.

But the report said there is no evidence to suggest that mental health cases were more risky for police than other incident types.

"The concern, therefore, is that ... there was nothing obvious that distinguished the circumstances of mental health incidents, except for the subjects themselves," the report wrote.

It added: "Of equal concern is the fact that the percentage of [conducted energy weapon] reports of deployment that are mental health-related has shown an increase for four straight years."

Overall, the number of times RCMP officers pulled their stun guns out last year totalled 694 -- 38 per cent less often in 2009 compared with the previous year. That figure includes each time the stun gun was simply taken out of a police holster -- whether the weapon was fired or not.

That's down from an all-time high in 2007 of 1,583 incidents. The RCMP introduced the conducted energy weapon into their arsenal in 2002.

Regionally, every RCMP division except Yukon saw Taser use -- the threatened or actual deployment of the weapon -- decrease.

The rate of actual deployment of the weapon also dropped in each division except for Prince Edward Island.

The report also shows that in 2009, for the first time ever, Mounties fired their Tasers less than 50 per cent of the times they drew them.

This suggests that "Tasers have increasingly been used as a means of deterrence and a tool for compliance," the commission wrote.

RCMP national spokeswoman Sgt. Julie Gagnon said the decrease is related to the new policy put into place following recommendations made by retired Appeal Court judge Thomas Braidwood, who led a public inquiry into the Tasering and death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport.

Since Dziekanski's death, the RCMP has made a number of changes to its Taser policies, including restricting the weapon's use to incidents of officer or public safety, introducing annual recertification for trained users and enhancing reporting on all use-of-force incidents by RCMP officers.

The most recent change was in May when it was determined Tasers should only be fired when a suspect is causing "bodily harm" or is about to do so.

The RCMP also changed its rules in June 2009 so that police could no longer use the weapon on suspects who did not cooperate.

The revised policy dictated that there must be a threat to the public or the police.

Gagnon did not comment on Taser use on subjects exhibiting mental health problems.

She said the RCMP was still reviewing the report Thursday afternoon.

- - -

Taser deployment 2008/09 by RCMP division

N.L. 20/7

Man. 49/15

B.C. 208/109

Sask. 68/26

N.W.T. 15/3

N.S. 24/4

N.B. 30/28

Alta. 123/66

P.E.I. 2/3

Yukon 6/6

Nunavut 18/9

Total 563/276

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