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Tallying Tasers

Reports Show More Than Half of Stun-gun Incidents in Ottawa Involve Suicidal, Disturbed Individuals

by Neco Cockburn

OTTAWA - Ottawa police officers arrived at an apartment one night about five years ago to find a suicidal male with four steak knives embedded in his stomach.

He did not follow their commands, so officers drew a gun, but used a Taser instead, and took him into custody within about 20 minutes.

The case is indicative of most incidents in which the city's police officers have used their Tasers over the past eight years. More than half the people Tasered by Ottawa police are suicidal, mentally ill or emotionally disturbed, reports obtained by the Citizen show.

Through a request made under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Citizen received use of force reports regarding 115 Taser-related incidents between Oct. 15, 2000, a few months after the Taser was introduced as part of a pilot project, and March of this year.

The reports are regulated by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and are to be filled out and reviewed by the police service. They do not record personal information, such as the ages of people involved, and often provide only brief narrative descriptions of incidents, but they offer a glimpse into the nature of calls in which Ottawa police have relied on the devices.

The reports show:

. Although most incidents occurred in houses or apartments, at least three people were Tasered in hospitals and four others in police cellblocks.

In 2003, a "combative drunk" male allegedly refused to get into his cell, struggled with an officer and grabbed the cell door and would not allow it to be closed. A Taser was used to "touch Tase" the male's hand, forcing him to let go of the door.

. The person involved in a Taser-related incident had a weapon - usually a knife or other edged weapon - in at least 44 cases. The presence of a weapon was "unknown" in at least 25 cases.

In one incident, a person allegedly injecting cocaine refused to drop a needle and officers used pepper spray and a Taser.

In another incident, a male armed with a Taser was found in a public bathroom and was Tasered by police after allegedly being unco-operative.

One male told security guards that he had a gun and pointed a black object at police officers. The object was later found to be a phone.

. Several cases involved people who were allegedly actively resisting arrest or threatening and assaulting police officers or other people at a scene.

In 2000, a male threatened to shoot a paramedic crew that arrived at an apartment. Last year, a "very aggressive, very large six-foot-four, 250-pound male" was "not interested in verbal communications" and threatened three officers at the scene with "I'm going to punch your f--king lights out."

. Sixty-five males and 13 females were involved in Taser incidents. Gender was not indicated in 37 reports.

The high-profile deaths of several people in Canada who had been Tasered have made the use of the device highly controversial. Some say the stun-guns should be banned pending futher investigation into their safety, while others argue they save lives.

After 35-year-old David Leclair of Aylmer was shot and killed by a Gatineau police officer at the end of last month, his family said a Taser could have prevented his death.

Others say the device is too dangerous, and point to the death of Robert Dziekanski, who died in October after RCMP officers used the device on him at Vancouver International Airport.

Last month, the RCMP's watchdog agency issued a report probing the force's use of Tasers, and recommended that no officer with less than five years' experience be allowed to use the device.

The RCMP public complaints commission also recommended that the force instruct its members to immediately seek medical attention for the target of a Taser and make changes to its reporting form in order to include more information.

Ottawa, the first municipality in Ontario to receive Tasers, has largely avoided controversy, and officers here use the device less than those in other Canadian police departments who provide Tasers to all front-line officers.

Until last fall, Tasers were used only by the Ottawa department's 32-member tactical team. But in October, front-line supervisors were issued the devices, which can subdue a person with a pulsating electrical current that overpowers the nervous system.

Since Tasers were introduced, the number of incidents involving Ottawa police has fluctuated between eight and 19 per year. Last year, there were 11 incidents.

In cities such as Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg, where front-line patrol officers are authorized to deploy Tasers, use of the device is considerably more frequent.

Police in Edmonton used Tasers 88 times between January and October of 2007.

Ottawa police, who believe the device is an important tool, say the use of force reports show the range of incidents that have led to Taser use.

"People who are under the influence of alcohol and drugs, emotionally disturbed and (have) mental illness don't respond to pain compliance," said Staff Sgt. Mike Maloney, the head of the force's tactical unit.

Other options, such as pepper spray and batons "are based on pain compliance, where the Taser does not use that. It disrupts the nervous system, which allows us to take somebody into custody," he said.

The use of force reports also indicate:

. The decision to use the Taser was usually made when the officer was within three metres of the subject. In at least 46 cases, the decision was made when the pair were less than two metres apart.

Use of force reports do not require officers to specify the number of times a person was been Tasered and whether it was a "push stun," whereby the device is pressed against the body, or whether the device's probes were deployed. The probes are tipped with a short dart that has a small barb that hooks into the body.

. Tasers were deemed to be ineffective in at least nine cases. One male swung a fridge in the way of the probes, while another male fell back into his apartment and the probes were dislodged by the door. Another Taser was rendered useless when its target wore baggy clothes.

. Tasers are often used in addition to other use of force options, such as pointing handguns or pepper spray. Pepper spray was used during an arrest involving a Taser at least 10 times. Amnesty International has raised concerns about the use of pepper spray, which affects respiration, in combination with Tasering.

In one case, officers responded to a half-dressed mentally unstable and violent male on a road who was allegedly actively resisting arrest. The officer who used the Taser saw that baton blows and pepper spray were ineffective, the report states. The Taser was used, but a probe dislodged when the male hit the ground. The male allegedly continued to fight and officers tried to use the Taser again in push stun mode, but it did not work. Pepper spray was again ineffective, so officers tackled the man from behind and he was eventually controlled.

. Almost all injuries reported following a Taser incident were deemed to be minor - often caused by the probes hooking a person's skin.

One fatal case was recorded. In January 2007, a 25-year-old man stabbed himself in the eye on Merivale Road and was Tasered after he tried to injure himself again. The man later died in hospital and Ottawa police were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in his death by the province's Special Investigations Unit.

Months and days of incidents were erased from reports given to the Citizen, making mid-year comparisons difficult.

Still, the number of Taser cases does not appear destined for a large increase this year as a result of their expanded use.

Police reported that seven Taser incidents have occurred up to last month.

©¬†Ottawa Citizen 2008

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