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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tasered and hog-tied correlates with death in custody: RCMP watchdog

December 12, 2010
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA—The watchdog over the RCMP is urging the police force to clearly tell officers not to hog-tie people after finding the generally forbidden technique was used in 40 per cent of cases in which someone died after being hit with a Taser stun gun.

A new report by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP also reveals “a number of instances” among the 10 deaths where members who fired the Taser were not certified to use the powerful weapon.

The hog-tie involves binding both the hands and feet behind a person, then linking them with rope or other such restraint.

The report recommends the Mounties better train officers on identifying, dealing with, and using force on the mentally ill and those with drug and alcohol problems.

“Many of the individuals had pre-existing medical conditions and a significant number of individuals were confirmed to have had a history of mental health problems,” says the report by complaints commission chairman Ian McPhail.

It also advocates detailing all deaths in police custody in a national database, which could improve understanding of risk factors and prevent future fatalities.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the commission’s interim report, completed in late July, under the Access to Information Act. A final report will be issued following feedback from RCMP Commissioner William Elliott.

Tasers can be fired from a distance, felling suspects with high-voltage bursts through sharp probes that dig into the skin, overriding the central nervous system. They can also be used up close in touch-stun mode, likened to leaning on a hot stove.

In an effort to see common threads, the commission looked at the 10 cases, spanning 2003 to 2008, in which someone died in RCMP custody after a Taser had been used. Six of the deaths occurred in British Columbia, with one each in Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Yukon.

The commission examined 50,000 pages of material related to the cases to come up with “a very general overview” of the people who died, namely:

A male who was initially unarmed;

A suspected or known user of a drug, most often cocaine;

Highly agitated; and

With pre-existing medical conditions, most likely cardiovascular in nature.

The use of the Taser most likely involved a police response to a disturbance call, was fired in both touch stun and probe modes, and involved three to four members.

The complaints commission generally found that relevant Taser policy was followed. But it noted the hog-tie was “still being readily used” to restrain people after stun gun firings despite being prohibited by the RCMP in 2002 with only specific exceptions.

The report says given that a number of autopsy reports listed body position as a preceding circumstance or contributing cause of death, the RCMP “ought to ensure that members understand the potential impact of using prohibited restraint mechanisms.”

It recommends the RCMP “develop and communicate to members clear protocols on the use of restraints and the prohibition of the hog-tie, modified hog-tie and choke-holds.”

The commission also found the RCMP’s “In-Custody Death” form — intended to capture information about the circumstances of a fatality — was not completed in eight of the 10 cases.

A separate Mountie Taser use form was filled out in seven cases, but many were completed “a significant time after the incident.

In addition, the information on file was often too limited to determine what officers did to try to de-escalate confrontations.

Continued employment of the hog-tie and the fact a number of officers weren’t qualified to use a Taser are reasons for concern, said Hilary Homes of Amnesty International Canada.

“I think this is a good example of why you need to have strong minimum standards.”

David Eby, executive director of the British Columbia Civll Liberties Association, wondered why it took an Access to Information request to dislodge the report. “This is important information that should be available widely.”

The RCMP said it would be inappropriate to comment on the interim report before the commissioner’s formal response is sent to the complaints body.

In May, the Mounties introduced a new Taser policy, saying they would fire stun guns at people only when they’re hurting someone or clearly about to do so.

The directive mirrored a recommendation from former judge Thomas Braidwood, head of a B.C. public inquiry on Taser use prompted by the 2007 death of air passenger Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport.

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