B.C. Supreme Court security guard’s Taser in New Westminster, Tuesday, November 20, 2007. (Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward)
RCMP Taser use
Documents show sharp increase in use
Last Updated May 13, 2008
Tasers were introduced into the RCMP in 2001 and since then more than 2,800 devices have become available to more than 9,100 RCMP officers across the country.
Police use of stun gun Tasers in Canada has increased sharply since the force began using them. According to Taser-use report forms released to the CBC/Radio Canada and The Canadian Press, Taser use has more than doubled in the last two years. RCMP officers drew or threatened to draw their Tasers a total of 1,414 times in 2007, up from 597 in 2005.
The RCMP is increasingly secretive about the ways its officers use Tasers at a time when there are increased demands for transparency.
These documents released under the Access to Information Law to CBC News/ Radio Canada and The Canadian Press are forms that RCMP officers must fill out every time they either threaten to use a Taser, fire it, or pull it from their holster.
The forms provide details about individual Taser incidents, such as whether the person was armed or may have been suffering from a mental illness. But the documents released have been heavily censored and that sort of information has been removed. Other circumstances that would help determine why the stun gun was used are also missing.
Reports released to The Canadian Press in 2007 revealed that in the majority of nearly 600 Taser incidents, the victims were unarmed. Many incidents also occurred in native communities. However, the most recent documents censor more information, making it impossible to determine whether the person was armed, or what an officer may have said to the targeted person before using the stun gun.
British Columbia and Alberta experienced the heaviest use. In those regions, the Mounties do much of the frontline policing compared to areas of the country with a heavier concentration of urban centres policed by municipal or provincial forces.
The heavily censored RCMP Taser reports make it difficult to determine the circumstances that led to each Taser incident and what happened to the person on which the stun gun was used. RCMP Commissioner William Elliott ordered a review in late March 2008 to determine whether more details could be released, but documents released two weeks later were also mostly blank.
"Our motivation is not to avoid criticism or controversy by exercising our discretion one way or the other," Elliott said at a news conference after the second release, "but to strike an appropriate balance between sometimes competing interests like privacy and the public's right to know." But, he added, "I believe we need to do a better job in assessing and factoring in the public interest."
In November 2007, the Canadian Press reported that three out of four suspects stun-gunned by the RCMP were unarmed. A pattern suggested that Mounties use Tasers as a quick means to keep "relatively low-risk prisoners, drunks and unruly suspects in line."
Canadian Press was told then that the use of Tasers in non-life-threatening cases is a common occurrence. RCMP are using them in situations to subdue or gain compliance perhaps when someone is reacting in a way the police disapprove of.
The short history of Taser use in Canada has been controversial.
Virtually all of these conductive energy devices are produced and sold by Arizona-based Taser International Inc., whose revenues have been steadily rising each year. From 2002 to 2003, the company's sales soared to $24.5 million US from $9.8 million US. In 2007, sales reached $100.7 million US, up 49 per cent from $67.7 million US in 2006.
Within Canada, electronic guns can only be sold to law enforcement agencies. In many U.S. states, civilians are permitted to acquire a stun gun for self-defence.
Critics and advocates
Law enforcement agencies like the RCMP and Canadian Police Research Centre are advocates of stun guns because they believe a Taser allows an officer to subdue violent individuals without using a lethal firearm. They conclude that the Taser causes only temporary pain and the subject will return to normal after a short period of time. Amnesty International and the Commission for Complaints Against the RCMP feel much differently.
According to Amnesty International, at least 280 people have died in the United States in connection with Tasers since July 2001. In Canada, at least 20 people have died after Taser shocks since police forces started using them in 1999.
"Excited delirium," in which people are in a heart-pounding state of agitation, has been repeatedly blamed to explain the sudden deaths of several people soon after being shocked. This was certainly the case in some high-profile deaths in British Columbia where the deaths after Taser use were linked to the syndrome.
People who abuse drugs or have a heart condition have also been deemed to be at risk if they receive a Taser jolt. Amnesty International has repeatedly called on police to suspend using Tasers pending an independent, comprehensive study of their effects.
Taser International Inc. stresses that the weapons have never been directly blamed for a death and has successfully defended itself in several lawsuits.
Inquiries and reports
Almost two months after Robert Dziekanski's death in Vancouver, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day called for an internal RCMP review of Tasers along with a report from its watchdog commission. The B.C. coroner and the Vancouver Airport Authority are also conducting their own investigations.
Federal Liberal public-safety critic Ujjal Dosanjh was unimpressed by Day's move. On Nov. 15, 2007, he called on the federal government to initiate a formal, national review of Taser use by law enforcement officers. Dosanjh believed that there must be a comprehensive review of Taser use in Canada and that there is a need to produce national guidelines.
He went on to say that "a private report to the minister is unacceptable. Any review or analysis must be thorough, public, prescriptive, and conducted by an independent body."
A month later, on Dec. 12 2007, Paul Kennedy — head of the Commission for Complaints Against the RCMP — released an interim report. The report criticizes the RCMP for failing to manage the use of Tasers and for allowing usage to grow over the past six years.
He recommended that the 50,000-volt Taser should only be used in touch-stun or firing mode when suspects are "combative" or pose a risk of "death or grievous bodily harm."
Britain's Home Office publishes statistics quarterly on Taser use in England and Wales, citing a need for a "rigorous and measured approach" to introducing the relatively new weapons.
He observed that Taser use "has expanded to include subduing resistant subjects who do not pose a threat of grievous bodily harm or death and on whom the use of lethal force would not be an option."
In addition, Kennedy says the Taser restrictions should apply in cases of so-called excited delirium. His report did not suggest a cessation, but rather 10 recommendations.
His suggestions included:
- Recertifying officers who use Tasers every two years instead of every three years.
- Creation of an RCMP national "use-of-force" co-ordinator to oversee policies techniques and equipment.
- Stricter reporting requirements to ensure complete records of Taser use.
- More research conducted on the stun guns.
- Quarterly and annual RCMP reports on use of the electronic guns.
Two days after the interim report was released, the RCMP responded by saying they would more clearly define use-of-force terminology and limit Taser use to situations where "a subject is displaying combative behaviours or is being actively resistant."
"We are less than happy with the [new policy] because they don't deal with the fact that we wanted to classify it as an impact weapon for combative situations," Nelson Kalil, spokesman for the RCMP Complaints Commission, told Canadian Press.
Since the RCMP statement, there have been no visible changes to the way Tasers are used or documented. Kennedy found no annual report produced, nor has the police force thoroughly investigated statistical information on Taser use in developing policy.
Insp. Troy Lightfoot, who helps oversee RCMP Taser use, says the force plans to produce regular reports on Taser use, but could not say whether they would be made public.
A public inquiry into the use of Tasers by police and the death of Dziekanski, commissioned by retired B.C. Appeal Court justice Thomas Braidwood began on May 5, 2008, in Vancouver. The inquiry will examine the medical and scientific aspects of the stun gun and the specific circumstances surrounding the Dziekanski incident. The findings may restrict the use of Tasers by municipal police forces but will have no jurisdiction over the federally regulated RCMP.
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