OTTAWA - RCMP policy changes acknowledge that Taser stun guns can kill - especially "acutely agitated" suspects - and will now restrict their use to cases involving threats to officers or public safety.
RCMP Commissioner William Elliott says the new rules clearly set out that Mounties can't zap suspects for simple resistance or refusing to co-operate.
Tasers "hurt like hell," he said Thursday of his own reaction to a trial firing. And their use must be justified as a necessary and reasonable use of force, he told MPs on the Commons public safety committee.
"The RCMP's revised (Taser) policy underscores that there are risks associated with the deployment of the device and emphasizes that those risks include the risk of death, particularly for agitated individuals."
Taser International Inc., the U.S.-based maker of the stun guns, has steadfastly defended the safety of its devices. It is appealing a ruling by a U.S. federal judge earlier this month ordering it to pay more than $1.4 million in fees to the lawyers for the family of a man who died in 2005. He had been Tasered dozens of times by police in Salinas, Calif.
In June, a jury awarded the man's family more than $5 million in damages after finding that Taser failed to warn police of the potential dangers of multiple shocks. The case marks the first time the company has been found negligent in a death related to the use of its stun guns.
For its part, Arizona-based Taser International has said: "Specifically in Canada, while previous incidents were widely reported in the media as 'Taser deaths,' the role of the Taser device has been cleared in every case to date."
Spokesman Steve Tuttle said Thursday that the company "continues to acknowledge that no use-of-force tool is risk free.
"Taser technology is, however, the proven safer response to resistance compared to any other use-of-force tool. We stand by the safety of our devices as shown by the substantial volume of Taser research and we remain committed to protecting the lives of law enforcement officers and suspects alike."
On Parliament Hill, opposition Liberal and New Democrat MPs pressed Elliott to clarify how the RCMP defines a threat to public safety.
"I don't get comfort from that wording," said New Democrat Jack Harris. "The notion of public safety is a very broad one."
Acceptable Taser use includes cases of "lethal overwatch," Elliott said - those serious enough that a second officer is prepared to fire a real gun if the electronic version doesn't fell the suspect.
Elliott was later asked how the policy would affect officers in rural areas who must sometimes work alone.
"If an officer responded without another officer as sometimes does happen, and they were facing a threat of grievous bodily harm or death, our policy would preclude them from using a Taser."
In other words, the officer would draw his or her firearm.
But the commissioner stressed that Mounties are urged to wait for back-up if possible before answering the most dangerous calls.
Officers had previously been instructed that Tasers are a good way to subdue suspects in a state of so-called "excited delirium" and get them medical treatment.
That phrase - derided by critics as a medically unrecognized, catch-all descriptor for sudden death after being Tasered - no longer appears in RCMP operational manuals, Elliott said.
It has been removed "because we are of the view that it is not reasonable for us to expect police officers ... to diagnose conditions. They're highly trained, but they're not medical experts and we don't think it's fair or reasonable to have policy based on a medical condition or diagnosis.
"We've tried to craft the policy in language that is understandable by our officers. And we do talk about people who are in an agitated or delirious state."
The RCMP supports the committee's call for medical back-up in such cases but it's not always practical or possible, Elliott said.
Revised policy warns of potential hazards of multiple Taser firings. It stops short, however, of reclassifying the electronic guns as an "impact weapon" as the committee recommended.
Elliott says that's because Tasers are already classed as a prohibited firearm with clear use restrictions.
The policy changes now also require officers to report by the end of their shift each time they fire or even draw their stun guns.
Such reports are submitted to the government and to the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP for quarterly and annual reports.
Elliott said he expects paperwork will start to show fewer incidents of use as a handy tool to keep suspects or prisoners in line.
"If those incidents occur, they will occur contrary to policy and the officers who have been involved ... will be held accountable," he said.
Paul Kennedy, head of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, says he'll watch 2009 police reports closely to see if Taser "usage creep" drops off.
"We've had all sorts of uses that were inappropriate between 2001 and 2007," he said. Kennedy will also assess RCMP training to ensure officers get clear direction on what to do when suspects pose little or no threat.
"Our concern is not the high end, but whether or not there's a clear floor below which, if you use it, that is an inappropriate use."
"How do you address a handcuffed person in the station? Do you tell them you don't Taser that person? If you don't, then there's no floor and we're going to have repeat behaviour."
The all-party public safety committee called last June for the 50,000-volt devices to be reined in and reclassified as "impact weapons" until Taser safety is shown through impartial studies.
MPs also recommended the RCMP revise its policy on stun gun use to include clear and strict use guidelines, as is the case for firearms, that would limit multiple firings.
Conservative MPs expressed satisfaction with the police force response, but Liberal MP Mark Holland cited gaps - including a lack of independent Canadian research on stun-gun safety.
Amnesty International is among groups that have urged a ban on the weapons pending conclusive impartial study.
At least 20 Canadians have died after being Tasered. The death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died after RCMP officers repeatedly zapped and then pinned him to the floor, is the subject of an inquiry in B.C.
Mounties across Canada have used their stun guns more than 5,000 times in the last seven years. An analysis of incidents by The Canadian Press between 2002 and 2005 found that three in four suspects jolted by the RCMP were unarmed.
It also suggested a pattern of police use of the weapons for compliance rather than to defuse major threats.
Elliott says the stun guns save lives, and officers will now refresh Taser training each year instead of every two years.
The RCMP has tested 60 weapons since the CBC reported that some pre-2005 models packed more of a shock than the manufacturer promises.
Elliott says the RCMP's own independent tests have so far turned up no cause for concern but said he would keep MPs informed as the work continues.
A scientific review commissioned by the CBC and French-language Radio-Canada concluded that four of 41 guns tested actually discharged more electrical current than Taser International says is possible.
In some of the test firings the police weapons delivered 50 per cent more current.