OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, acknowledging its officers have on occasion been too quick to use Tasers, said on Thursday its members may now only fire the stun guns if there is a real threat to themselves or public safety.
The national police force also said officers have been warned that the weapons can kill.
Critics say the Mounties have used Tasers -- also known as Conducted Energy Weapons (CEW) -- too frequently and often zap suspects who pose no real threat. Such incidents include people trying to avoid paying fares on public transport and, in one case, an elderly man who was strapped to a hospital stretcher.
“On June 18, 2008, all members of the RCMP were instructed that the CEW must only be used where it is necessary to do so in circumstances of threats to officer(s) or public safety,” said RCMP Chief Commissioner William Elliott.
“This requirement has subsequently been written into our formal policy. The fact that deploying CEW involves risk was also reinforced,” he told a parliamentary committee on public safety.
Concern over the weapons heightened in 2006 after Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died at Vancouver’s airport during an incident in which he was jolted several times by police Tasers and then physically restrained.
Elliott, who declined to comment specifically on the Dziekanski case, later said officers would no longer use Tasers against suspects who were merely resisting arrest.
“I think there certainly have been some instances where Tasers have been used in inappropriate circumstances,” he told a news conference.
Witnesses testifying at a public inquiry into his death this month said Dziekanski had been emotional and upset in the moments leading up to the incident.
Elliott said the RCMP’s new policy on Tasers warns that it is dangerous to use them several times on a suspect.
“The RCMP’s revised CEW policy underscores that there are risks associated with deployment of the device and emphasizes that those risks include the risk of death, particularly for acutely agitated individuals,” he told the committee.
The Taser -- made by U.S. firm Taser International Inc -- incapacitates people through a 50,000-volt jolt of electricity. Police say they are needed as a non-lethal alternative to firearms.
Elliott cited three medical studies that he said showed that the vast majority of people hit by Taser blasts suffered no lasting effects.
The official opposition Liberal Party, which wants a clampdown on Taser use, complained that only one of the studies Elliott cited had been peer-reviewed.
“It is simply not acceptable to use a weapon when its effects are not fully understood,” said Liberal public safety spokesman Mark Holland.
A Canadian report made public last September said the Mounties had not done research on the dangers of Tasers before they approved the weapons for use.
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.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway