Mounties Zap Details From Taser Reports As Firings Soar Across Canada
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
OTTAWA - The RCMP is stripping crucial details about Taser firings from public reports as use of the controversial stun guns skyrockets across the country.
A joint investigation by The Canadian Press and CBC found the Mounties are now refusing to divulge key information that must be recorded each time they draw their electronic weapons.
As a result, Canadians will know much less about who is being hit with the 50,000-volt guns, whether they were armed, why they were fired on and whether they were injured.
Taser report forms obtained under the Access to Information Act show the Mounties have used the powerful weapons more than 4,000 times since introducing them seven years ago.
Incidents have increased dramatically, topping 1,000 annually in each of the last two years compared with about 600 in 2005. The overwhelming majority of firings took place in Western Canada, where the national force often leads front-line policing.
As Taser use escalates, however, the RCMP has tightened the lid of secrecy.
Information stripped from the forms includes details of several Taser cases the Mounties previously made public under the access law. In effect, the RCMP is reclassifying details of Taser use - including some telling facts that raised pointed questions about how often the stun guns are fired and why.
A Canadian Press analysis last November of 563 incidents between 2002 and 2005 found three in four suspects Tasered by the RCMP were unarmed. Several of those reports suggested a pattern of stun-gun use as a handy tool to keep drunk or rowdy suspects in line, rather than to defuse major threats.
But the Mounties are now censoring Taser report forms to conceal related injuries, duration of shocks, whether the individual was armed, what police tried before resorting to the stun gun, and precise dates of firings.
In fact, Canadians now know more about the Tasering of dogs than humans. One of the most detailed new reports describes how a pooch named Princess was zapped with a stun gun in Maple Ridge, B.C., as five officers carried out a search warrant.
Princess was not given the standard warning: "Police! Stop or you will be hit with 50,000 volts of electricity!"
There was little point, the report goes on to note: "Subject would not have understood the command, as subject was a dog."
The RCMP cites the need to protect privacy and continuing investigations to justify why it removed such basic details from other reports.
Liberal public safety critic Ujjal Dosanjh scoffed at the explanation.
"That's hogwash. That's absolute nonsense," the former attorney general for British Columbia said in an interview. "Whether or not someone was armed ... how does that violate privacy?"
Dosanjh noted that names and addresses are already removed from the forms.
"The RCMP is a public police force. They are accountable to Canadians.
"They have to provide that information so that people can judge for themselves whether or not their police force is acting appropriately."
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day was travelling Monday and was not immediately available for comment.
Insp. Troy Lightfoot, who helps oversee RCMP Taser use, would not speculate on why the reporting changes were made. But he stressed there are still ways to monitor stun guns and other uses of force.
"I can tell you that there are many accountability systems in place with regards to police actions. You have the courts, you have coroners' inquests, you have a multitude of oversight bodies," he said. "There is a complaints process that can be followed."
Paul Kennedy, head of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, said the decision to withhold details of Taser firings amounts to a self-defeating lack of transparency that bucks widespread calls for more - not less - public reporting.
"There seems to be something that is touching a chord with Canadians when they see the Taser.
"Now, it may be because the person is just reduced to a squirming ball of flesh on the ground, that it seems to be used against men and women, it is used against young people, it is used against old people. There is the issue as to whether or not deaths are associated with it."
The RCMP should be making public as much Taser data as possible, Kennedy said.
"There is nothing more important to the police than maintaining and restoring public confidence. How do you do that? You do that by getting your story out."
Stun guns have swiftly become the go-to weapon for scores of police and correctional officers across Canada. The RCMP has more than 2,800 Tasers and some 9,100 Mounties are trained to use them.
They can be fired from a distance, laying suspects low with high-voltage bursts that override the central nervous system. They can also be used up close in touch-stun mode, which has been likened to leaning on a hot stove.
The potent devices are hugely popular with officers who say they're a safer, more efficient option than pepper spray or batons. But a rash of recent headlines has raised questions about the extent to which painful Taser jolts are used much like cattle prods on unarmed, non-violent suspects.
RCMP reports previously released to The Canadian Press also detailed several head injuries when suspects struck the floor, along with burns caused by stuns and lacerations from sharp Taser probes.
Public wariness about the weapons turned to full-blown anger last fall when amateur video showing the death of Robert Dziekanski was released. RCMP were called last October when the Polish immigrant became agitated at Vancouver International Airport after spending hours in a secure section while his mother tried in vain to contact him from the public side.
Although Dziekanski appears more confused than threatening on the video, the officers waited less than 30 seconds before they zapped the 40-year-old with a Taser and pinned him to the floor as he wailed in pain. Within minutes, he was dead.
It took 15 months and an official complaint before the RCMP would release thousands of pages recording more than 4,000 Taser incidents.
There are stark differences between the newly released forms and earlier versions filed about the same confrontations.
For example, the original report on a March 7, 2004, case in northern Manitoba revealed that an unarmed detainee in a Pukatawagan RCMP cell was Tasered after only oral intervention. There was no attempt to subdue the inmate through physical force before the officer warned: "Let me introduce you to the Taser. It is able to produce 50,000 volts of electricity. Co-operate with us and you will not be stunned."
The new form says only that the confrontation occurred in 2004, with no precise date. The section entitled Weapons Carried or Immediately Available by Subject is blank.
And there is no longer any description of verbal commands or other police response before the Taser was fired.
"It certainly isn't helpful to be in the midst of greater debate with less and less information," says Hilary Homes of Amnesty International Canada. "In general, it's a problem across Canada that we don't have the same accountability system throughout the many forces that use the Taser."
Amnesty International wants the devices suspended pending an independent, comprehensive study of risks and benefits.
Dziekanski was recorded as the 18th person in Canada to die after being hit by a Taser since police started carrying them in 2001. The tally has since risen to 19. Amnesty says at least 280 people have died in the United States following a Taser zap in the last seven years.
Arizona-based manufacturer Taser International stresses the device has never been directly blamed for a death. It has, however, been cited repeatedly as a contributing factor.
Kennedy referred to "usage creep" in an interim report on Tasers last December that urged the Mounties to drastically restrict reliance on the stun guns. The weapons should only be used in touch-stun or full firing mode when suspects are "combative" or pose a risk of "death or grievous bodily harm," he said.
Lightfoot, however, said the cases he has recently analyzed indicate the Taser was used acceptably. "It is an appropriate device for law-enforcement use, and it does enhance police and public safety. And it is one of the least injurious means that we have available to take people into police custody."
Kennedy devoted a whole section of his report to the need for more and better documentation of Taser use. He recommended the RCMP produce quarterly and annual reports detailing the number and nature of firings, how often medical care was needed, and the number of Mounties and instructors who passed or failed related training.
Lightfoot said the force plans to produce regular reports on Taser use, but could not say whether they would be made public.
Britain's Home Office publishes statistics quarterly on Taser firings in England and Wales, citing a need for a "rigorous and measured approach" to introducing the weapons in the United Kingdom.
Dosanjh says revelations of an RCMP clampdown on Taser data is another blow to the national police force's battered reputation.
It comes as the federal government moves to overhaul an iconic institution that has seen more than its share of major gaffes in recent years - from the Maher Arar torture affair to claims by rank-and-file Mounties of high-level meddling in RCMP pension and insurance plans.
"I'm actually embarrassed," said Dosanjh. "I dealt with the RCMP ... in British Columbia when I was the attorney general. I was proud of that. But the more I look at how they function, the more I see the lack of transparency and accountability, I am flabbergasted.
"I don't know whether the red serge is any more a symbol that we should be so proud of."
The RCMP requires its officers to file a written report each time a Taser is fired, or even removed from its holster. The Canadian Press and CBC obtained more than 4,000 such reports for the period from 2001 to 2007. Some statistics on the number of reports filed, by year and by region:
2001: 2; 2002: 84; 2003: 559; 2004: 240; 2005: 597; 2006: 1,119; 2007: 1,414
(Note: The RCMP suspended mandatory reporting in 2004, reinstating the requirement in 2005.)
Newfoundland and Labrador: 24
Nova Scotia: 53
Prince Edward Island: 16
New Brunswick: 81
Ontario (including Ottawa HQ): 2
British Columbia: 496
Northwest Territories: 53
(Note: The RCMP does minimal front-line policing in Ontario and Quebec.)