Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Shocking police abuse

The Canadian Police Research Centre has OK'ed the use in the field of tasers, whoops, "conducted energy devices," by Canadian police officers, after finding no evidence that their use causes death. The CPRC is a partnership of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the RCMP and the National Research Council.

I shall try to refrain from easy analogies: the Sugar Institute finding that obesity is not related to sucrose intake, or the Tobacco Institute discovering that smoking is non-addictive. Instead, I want to tell the story of an Ottawa activist whom I'll call Peter Jones.

A couple of years ago, a demonstration took place outside the offices of Minister of Immigration Denis Coderre, in support of Algerian refugees fearing deportation who were at that time occupying his office. I belong to a community organization (Ottawa Witness Group) that monitors police activity at demonstrations, and three of our group were present that evening. Here is an excerpt of their report:

Two women, whom Witnesses observed to be standing on the street immediately outside the front doors to 365 Laurier, were suddenly arrested, handcuffed and led away (a mother and daughter). Force was used on the younger woman, who was pushed face down on the pavement, and her arms were immediately forced behind her back and her wrists handcuffed. At one point, her prone body was lifted off the ground by pulling up on her handcuffed wrists, obviously causing considerable pain. Photos of this arrest were taken.

The group of about 20 tactic squad officers on the street grabbed one of the demonstrators, wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, twisted his head on the ground, put a fist to his Adam's apple and dragged him to a police car. Police tasered him a number of times after he had been subdued. As they were taking him down, the demonstrator said that there was no need to use violence as he was not resisting, and said "you are breaking my arms..." One of the Witnesses made note of the identification tags on the officers involved in this operation.

Another officer tasered a female demonstrator near two witnesses. She had been chanting slogans but was on the sidewalk across the street from the entrance to 365 Laurier. She reported the names of the officer involved to us. One witness noted that he saw the officer press a taser gun onto the woman's left breast and fire.

Jones, the man who had been subdued, made a formal complaint to police, although the complaints procedure is, to put it bluntly, a farce in which police investigate themselves. The testimony of our group was discounted: the accounts of police witnesses were upheld. Jones' non-violent resistance (going limp on the sidewalk after an arrest that proved to be ill-founded) was considered to be "active resistance" and the use of "pain compliance" (repeated tasering) was considered appropriate under the circumstances. Unfortunately for the Ottawa cops, a civilian was videotaping the whole thing, and police actions are now under investigation in a rare intervention by Ontario's Civilian Commission on Police Services (OCCOPS). At a recent hearing, the police videotape of the incident, oddly enough, was found to be missing the few seconds when the tasering actually occurred.

At a meeting between the Ottawa Witness Group and police representatives from their Major Events Liaison Team, the police were asked what the official guidelines were for using tasers. They replied that they could not divulge that information. To this day, no one in Ottawa (other than the police) knows when the use of this weapon is authorized, or even if there are guidelines for its use.

Gretchen over at Green Lantern has done a fine job of compiling instances of police taser abuse throughout North America, and indeed they are legion. One victim of this device was an Aboriginal kid asleep in a car who was tasered repeatedly. The case had possible racial overtones: while a judge found the taser use to be an "abuse of use of force" and "cruel and unusual treatment," Crown prosecutors in Edmonton declined to prosecute the police officer involved--who just happened to be the son of a former police chief.

Other victims of the taser have included a six-year-old boy, a disabled teen, a pregnant woman, a Florida man strapped down on a hospital bed who wouldn’t provide a urine sample--even a man whose "crime" was overloading his salad plate at Chuck E. Cheese. What we have in the taser, in fact, is a hi-tech version of that good old Southern US police staple, the cattle prod.

Amnesty International has compiled a massive amount of documentation on the use of tasers, which in many cases "contravenes international standards prohibiting torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as well as standards set out under the United Nations (UN) Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials."

But back to Ottawa. The Ottawa police are now calling the taser an alternative to firearms. "In circumstances where they may have to access their firearm, to resolve the situation, it gives them another tool," Ottawa Police Chief Vince Bevan says.

Perhaps Peter Jones ought to count his blessings.

Your morning smile

It's not non-lethal...it's of a lower lethality.
--Steve Palmer, executive director of the Canadian Police Research Centre, on the taser

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