While human rights organization Amnesty International Canada has praised guidelines regulating when officers may utilize Tasers -- also known as conducted energy devices (CEDs) -- on suspects, it remains concerned that the threshold for permissible use is too low.
“We welcome things like the accountability requirements, the training and certification, the limitations on the number of times you can stun somebody and that sort of thing before re-assessing the situation,” AI Can security and human rights campaigner Hilary Homes said.
“The place where we still have some concern is around the threshold of use.”
For the past five years, the SPC restricted the use of CEDs to the RCMP and municipal SWAT teams. But on Monday it approved more widespread use among municipal police across Saskatchewan.
The federal government previously established a non-binding minimum standard for CED use in 2010. Among the guidelines were recommendations against using Tasers on children, pregnant women, the elderly, people under restraint and those driving moving vehicles. Officers were counselled not to aim for sensitive areas such as the head, throat or genitals.
Going forward, Saskatchewan police will be required to adhere to new guidelines that Homes said represent an advance, but do not go far enough.
“Our main concern is that that threshold for use is too low,” she said. “I mean, the one outlined here, which is ‘imminent high risk of bodily harm,’ is an improvement on that non-binding national standard. But we really want to see something at the level of imminent threat of death or serious -- as in potentially life-threatening -- bodily injury, which cannot be contained by a less extreme option.
“So from our perspective, it’s higher up that set of choices before you would go to a conducted energy weapon.”
When it comes to human rights, Homes said the intention is always to use the least amount of force necessary to resolve a situation.
Recognizing the unique challenges faced by police officers in the line of duty and the need to make quick decisions in potentially life-threatening situations, Amnesty International has never opposed the use of CEDs outright.
“We’ve never been for banning the device,” Homes said. “We were for a moratorium, and for us the difference is, we only call for a ban when the only intent behind the device is something like torture, where the only intent is a human rights violation.
Our main concern is that that threshold for use is too low. - Hilary Homes
“The problem with stun devices, from a human rights perspective, was they were very prone to misuse, and they were deployed in advance of really understanding the technology. And I think we do have a better understanding of the technology by far now than we did 10, 12 years ago, or even five years ago. But there’s still concern for accountability and … the right threshold and this sort of thing. So it’s still a situation we’re keeping an eye on.”
For its part, the Prince Albert Police Service is pleased with the SPC’s decision.
“It provides us with another non-lethal option in the force continuum that we have,” Sgt. Kelly McLean said. “We see it as good news. It provides us with another option between say, for example, pepper spray and deadly force. That’s one of the last options that we want to have to go to, and the CED provides us with an option between those two things.”
Homes disputes the classification of CEDs as “non-lethal.”
“We do not say ‘non-lethal.’ We say ‘less lethal,’ Homes said. “From Amnesty’s point of view -- a human rights point of view -- don’t use language like ‘non-lethal,’ because frankly you can use anything lethally, and the intent of this device is less lethal.”
Sgt. McLean noted that the SPC had examined the health risks of Taser use for the last five years and that the provincial guidelines reflect those lessons. For example, if police have knowledge prior to deployment that a suspect has a health condition such as heart trouble, they are to avoid stun gun use altogether.
He also emphasized that the increasing use of Tasers by Prince Albert police would be a protracted process.
“This isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight,” McLean said. “This is an issue that’s going to be dealt with in training along with a lot of other ones too. We’re quite a ways away from actually deploying these devices on the street, and a part of it is going to be making sure that our officers are trained up to a provincial standard.”