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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mounties agree to limit Taser use amid growing pressure to restrict stun guns

Sue Bailey And Jim Bronskill, THE CANADIAN PRESS
OTTAWA - The RCMP says it will restrict Taser firings in the face of mounting public pressure on the national force to rein in what critics call "usage creep."

Officers will have clearer direction on how and when the powerful weapons should be wielded "as quickly as possible," the Mounties said Wednesday following renewed calls for action by the RCMP complaints commission.

Chairman Paul Kennedy released a final report echoing his interim call to limit Tasers to clashes where suspects are combative or risk serious harm to themselves, the police or the public.

The RCMP agreed that the force must "properly instruct" its members "and account for our use of the weapon."

"We have already implemented or begun implementation of much of what Mr. Kennedy has recommended."

A Canadian Press CBC-Radio-Canada investigation of more than 3,200 RCMP Taser firings in the last six years shows that officers shot the weapon multiple times in almost half of cases.

The pattern of repeated shocks has continued in recent years despite a 2005 RCMP directive warning numerous zaps could be hazardous.

The analysis also revealed that nearly a third of the people hit with Tasers needed medical treatment after, raising new questions about a potent tool that's overwhelmingly popular with police.

In his 78-page report, Kennedy urged tighter controls on a weapon the Mounties have drawn from their holsters more than 4,000 times since its introduction in 2001.

"I want it boxed in, I want constraints," he told a news conference.

But Kennedy stopped short of recommending a moratorium, saying the risk of being hit with a Taser is less than being shot in the chest with a conventional gun. "No one is calling for the police to be disarmed and not use weapons."

Amplifying Kennedy's call was a report Wednesday from the all-party Commons public safety committee unanimously recommending the RCMP scale back Taser use by Dec. 15.

"As long as uncertainty persists about the Taser gun's safety . . . the RCMP has a duty to be prudent and clearly prohibit its deployment unless the subject poses a threat of death or serious injury," it says.

If the force fails to meet that deadline, the committee will call for an immediate moratorium.

MPs also recommended the Mounties draft "clear and strict usage guidelines, as is the case for firearms, that will include clear restrictions" on multiple firings.

The 50,000-volt weapons can be shot from a distance of several metres and cycled repeatedly once steel probes puncture a suspect's skin or clothing. The guns can also be fired over and over in up-close stun mode - a pain likened to leaning on a hot stove - sometimes blistering the skin.

Kennedy said only Mounties with the rank of corporal or higher should be allowed to use Tasers in cities. In rural areas with 5,000 residents or fewer, only constables with at least five years on the job should be authorized to fire the weapon.

He stressed that young officers "are very good Canadians who've taken on very difficult jobs," but they need mentoring and experience.

Still, that would create the bizarre scenario of new recruits carrying guns but not Tasers, said Tony Cannavino, president of the Canadian Police Association.

"This is ridiculous. Every police officer in Canada should be able to use a Taser," he said, noting many isolated and rural RCMP detachments have bare-bones staffing.

"There's no resources, no backup. Now they wouldn't even have the right to use a Taser? That's a problem."

Representatives of rank-and-file Mounties said they would work to protect officers' interests in any policy changes. Staff Sgt. Brian Roach said in a statement he was relieved that Kennedy's report did not urge a moratorium.

Kennedy found, however, that the RCMP has failed to comprehensively track how and when members fire the contentious stun guns.

He said the quality of the Mounties' own Taser data is so poor that related policy changes over the years "cannot be factually supported" - what he calls a dangerous practice.

Kennedy also recommended immediate medical attention for people Tasered by the RCMP "in all circumstances."

"This is particularly relevant for at-risk populations, such as people with mental-health issues, substance-abuse problems, health and homelessness challenges and other marginalized groups in society."

Unlike the consequences of a gun, Taser trauma isn't always as obvious, Kennedy said.

"You know what it is to put a bullet in someone. So officers right away intuitively know that's a very serious thing to do. We've all successfully diminished the significance of the use of the Taser - and that's why we find it being used, I think, in circumstances that are highly inappropriate.

"I've got 117 reports with Tasers being used against 13, 14, 15 and 16 year olds. I have a 14- year-old girl fleeing from a car and the Taser is deployed against her in probe mode."

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day asked Kennedy to study the RCMP's Taser use amid a public uproar over the weapons last fall.

In a statement Wednesday, Day said the government "accepts the report and its recommendations in principle," including further restrictions on how Tasers are used. Day has already met with RCMP Commissioner William Elliott to discuss the implications, he said.

"He has indicated to me that he intends to act on the recommendations in a manner that takes into consideration the operational requirements of the RCMP," Day said.

"We agree on the need to move forward in ways that will help to maintain the safety of the public and the men and women that protect our communities."

The RCMP declined to elaborate Wednesday.

Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died in October after he was repeatedly zapped with an RCMP Taser and subdued by officers at Vancouver International Airport. A hair-raising amateur video of his wrenching final moments circled the globe, fuelling fresh debate.

Twenty people in Canada have died after they were Tasered.

Arizona-based manufacturer Taser International points out that the weapons have never been directly blamed for a death, though they have been cited as contributing factors.

Amnesty International Canada has repeatedly called for a temporary moratorium pending an independent, in-depth study of potential risks.

"It is a shame this didn't happen seven or eight years ago," said spokesman Alex Neve. "By this point in time, we would therefore have that information and the right decisions could be made."

Neve shrugged off warnings that police-related deaths could spike if stun guns are sidelined.

"We see many circumstances in which the Taser is used and thus (causes) potential life and serious harm consequences for people, when there were other options very readily available to the police. We're not necessarily convinced that taking a moment of time now to halt using Tasers and conduct a study would lead to those grave consequences."

The Canadian Press, 2008

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