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Monday, April 11, 2011

Firm guidelines needed for Taser use on youth: Amnesty International

April 11, 2011
Bradley Bouzane and Frank Appleyard, Postmedia News
Vancouver Sun

A prominent human rights groups said Monday it is "very troubled" by the recent Tasering of an 11-year-old boy by B.C. Mounties and said federal leadership is needed to ensure the weapon is not used against children in unnecessary circumstances.

Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, says strict guidelines are needed to govern the use of Tasers, especially on children, and that alternative and less dangerous methods of enforcement should be exhausted before the device is used by police.

"Police forces should adopt guidelines which prohibit the use of Tasers against children unless there is an immediate threat to life that cannot be dealt with though lesser means," Neve said Monday. "It's a pretty high standard — it's an immediate threat to life, not an immediate threat of harm or injury. That's the only circumstance, in our view, police should even consider resorting to a Taser when dealing with a child.

"It needs to be a consistent guideline applied across the country. What we are often faced with in Canada, because we have a multitude of different policing jurisdictions, is different policing forces being subjected to different standards and regulations. When it comes to something this profoundly important — what kind of weapon is going to be used against a child — it can't come down in the end what municipality and province that child happens to be in. We need to see some real federal leadership here."

The 11-year-old boy in Prince George, B.C., was Tasered by police after he was accused of stabbing a 37-year-old man in a group home on April 7. The child was taken to hospital for assessment, while the stabbing victim was brought to hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond — B.C.'s child and youth advocate — is reviewing case. She said she expects she will launch a formal investigation of the case, noting the youth is an aboriginal living in care and among the "most vulnerable" group in B.C.

Neve, noting that last week's case involves the youngest person that Amnesty International is aware of to face a Taser in Canada, said any potential police review of the B.C. case "will almost certainly point to a very serious need for much clearer guidelines that determine when and if Tasers will ever be used against children."

The president of the Vancouver Police Union said officers must carefully weigh the use of a conducted energy weapon (CEW) such as a Taser.

"It's generally not something that a police officer would consider doing lightly," Tom Stamatakis said. "We would see using a charged electric weapon against a minor, an elderly person, a pregnant woman or someone with a known medical condition as a higher risk application of that level of force. We would be much more cautious about discharging a CEW in those circumstances."

Stamatakis also said that officers face unique challenges in policing situations involving minors.

"Dealing with youth is challenging for police officers, especially youth that are at risk," he said. "It's not like you're dealing with an adult that's more developed physically and mentally. You're dealing with a child that's still a child, regardless of what they're doing."

Neve said Canada's reputation regarding Taser use isn't the cleanest, with other high-profile cases such as the Taser death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski making international headlines.

"Because of the Robert Dziekanski incident in particular, the world is very much aware of the fact that Canada does not yet have its act together when it comes to ensuring proper regulation of Taser use by police in this country," he said. "This case is almost inevitably going to deepen those concerns, therefore all the more reason why we need to hear very quickly — in a detailed and transparent way from the police — as to how this all transpired."

Nick Bala of Queen's University's faculty of law, said to have a child so young Tasered by police is "unprecedented" in Canada, adding there are "grave concerns" about the situation.

Bala, who has authored several books on youth justice in Canada and a paper on criminal offending by children under the age of 12, said it is difficult to know where the onus lies in the most recent incident, but said the use of a Taser on a child that young would be extreme in most cases.

"We've never had a case like this in Canada when it would have been appropriate," he said. "And unless he had a firearm or possibly was threatening someone with a knife at the moment he was Tasered, it would not be appropriate physically, psychologically or legally."

Bala said until an investigation sheds more light on what actually happened, there will be many unanswered questions, but said the level of risk in Tasering is elevated in a child that young.

He noted the early indicators from last week's case in B.C. do not point to a justified use of a Taser.

"In fairness to the officer, we don't know whether the officer was aware of (the boy's) age . . . but even with an adolescent, there are concerns about the use of Tasers," he said. "Officers are required to use reasonable force. There are situations where you have a large, threatening adult where a Taser may be appropriate, but this does not seems to be one of those cases.

"I'm not saying it would never be appropriate, but there would be very grave concerns about the situation and it would take most unusual circumstances to justify and I certainly hope the details of the investigation will be made public in due course."

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