Saturday, October 29, 2011

Police Too Quick To Taser?

On April 7, 2011, an eleven year-old boy was tasered by Prince George (BC) RCMP following his suspected involvement in the stabbing of a 37 year-old man at a group home. Immediately following the incident, little was known or released about what prompted the police to taser the boy. Six months later, it was discovered that the boy in fact suffered from a heart condition, bipolar disorder and hearing impairment. During the incident, the RCMP was negotiating with the boy to come out. The boy appeared in a second-story window with what appeared to be a knife. He ran the object along his sweatshirt, arms and hands. The RCMP then witnessed the boy make cross-like gestures, which stood as a last straw for the RCMP before they decided to taser him when he came out. The boy negotiated for some clothes and when he came out, he was tasered. It was later seen that the boy did not have a knife in his hands, but rather, a pen. 

At first glance, it seems that the RCMP were out-negotiated by an 11 year-old boy who faced mental health problems. Rather than calmly or alternatively trying to negotiate with the boy, or perhaps find out more about his situation, the RCMP resorted quickly to using a taser. It is understandable that the RCMP were trying to protect the boy from himself and from themselves. However, by using a taser so quickly, they failed to consider the potentially fatal side effects, in particular on the boy’s heart condition. The RCMP also failed to verify whether the boy in fact was holding a weapon at all before deciding to taser him.  It begs the question of whether this 11 year-old boy really posed a threat to the RCMP at all.

Given the boy’s mental health condition, of notable interest would be to look into whether the RCMP has been provided with adequate training in handling situations of this nature. It is possible that the RCMP misinterpreted the boy’s signals or the boy was unable to comprehend the RCMP officers’ demands. Would this then be sufficient grounds for the RCMP officers to resort to tasering the 11 year-old boy? It is tough to see in any situation involving an 11 year-old why the RCMP would resort to tasering. It is even more compelling in this situation where the boy faced several mental health disorders.

An investigation was launched into the conduct of the Prince George RCMP officers involved. In charge of the investigation was the West Vancouver Police Department (WVPD), headed by Chief Constable Peter Lepine, a former RCMP officer. Of particular concern here is who is acting as a check on the power of the RCMP? From what it seems, the WVPD is not an entirely independent unit, and thus cannot really provide an “objective” inquiry into the RCMP. The issue of tasering is already contentious – can the RCMP be held truly accountable for their actions if investigated by the WVPD?

In the end, it was declared by the WVPD that the conduct of the Prince George RCMP did not violate the Criminal Code. However, few details of how this decision was made were given. Consequently, how can we as the public be satisfied with the results of this investigation? Although the initial story caused mass public discourse and debate, the results of the inquiry into the RCMP has seemed to go undetected. The detailed considerations that went into the WVPD investigation were not made transparent to the public. The length of time between when the incident occurred, and when more details were provided (6 months later) seems entirely unreasonable and did not allow for the public to remain informed.    

It is also important to note that separate investigations by independent groups were also launched, including that of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, and one by well-known BC Representative for Child and Youth, Mary Turpel-Lafond working alongside the BC Ministry of Child and Family Development. Results of these investigations have yet to be released but perhaps when they are, they will shed a more objective light on the situation.

Posted by Audrey Wong (Windsor Law)

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