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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said on Wednesday it would curb the use of Taser stun guns after the federal force's watchdog issued a stinging report accusing officers of zapping suspects unnecessarily.
The watchdog recommended that Mounties use Tasers -- made by U.S.-based Taser International Inc. -- only when a suspect threatened the safety of officers or the public.
The Taser, also known as a conducted energy weapon (CEW), incapacitates people through a 50,000-volt jolt of electricity. Police say they are needed as a nonlethal alternative to firearms.
"We will act on the recommendations as quickly as possible to provide clearer direction to our members, to further restrict situations in which the CEW can be deployed, and to develop and implement measures to enhance accountability," the RCMP said in a statement.
The watchdog's report, which said police were using the stun guns too often, was prompted by the 2007 case of a Polish immigrant who died shortly after Mounties shot him with Tasers at Vancouver airport and then subdued him.
"Our recommendations are designed to hold the RCMP publicly accountable for its use of a weapon that has caused considerable apprehension among Canadians, and to control usage creep," said Paul Kennedy, who chairs the commission on public complaints against the RCMP.
"This is a time for a more conservative use of this weapon," he said at a news conference, saying the Taser was now being used in "highly inappropriate" circumstances.
He did not call for a moratorium on Taser use, saying the weapon could be useful in some circumstances.
Taser International said good training and good policies go hand in hand with successful Taser programs.
"We have taken note of the findings and remain committed to continuing to work with law enforcement agencies and government bodies as they build on developing guidelines governing the usage of ECDs (electronic control devices) across Canada,"
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Brian Roach, a spokesman for the RCMP's rank-and-file members, said he was "relieved that the (complaints commission) supports the continued use of the CEW."
Critics point to incidents where officers in British Columbia fired stun guns at transit fare dodgers and also blasted an elderly man who was lying on a hospital stretcher.
Kennedy said the Taser should only be used against people who were "combative" or posed "a risk of death or grievous bodily harm" to police or the general public.
"My concern right now is we have people that are fleeing who are being Tasered," he said, adding that the age of victims stretched from 13 to 82. Most were drunk males between 20 and 39 who were Tasered at weekends.
Kennedy slammed what he called terrible record keeping by the RCMP which hid what he said was a clear relaxation of policies designed to curb Taser use.
"This has resulted in cases where individuals who exhibit behaviors which were clearly noncombative, and could not even be classified as resistant, have been Tasered," he said.
Last week a joint probe by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and Canadian Press found that over the last six years, Mounties had used two or more Taser blasts to stun suspects more than 40 percent of the time despite internal warnings that using more than one shot could be dangerous.
Critics say the weapon's use has been linked to more than 290 deaths in North America since 2001, and not enough is known about potential health risks such as heart failure.
Taser says there is no evidence the weapon caused any of the deaths. It did not respond to three requests for comment.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Frank McGurty