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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Use of Taser stun guns by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police dropped by almost a third last year, possibly because of a high-profile controversy about the weapon's safety and accusations the gun was being over-used, an official said on Thursday.
Public fears about Tasers may also be reflected in an increase in the percentage of times police deployed the weapon but did not fire it, said Paul Kennedy, chairman of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP.
The guns, which incapacitate suspects with a 50,000-volt shock, have been at the center of a series of high-profile media stories in Canada, most notably following a 2007 incident at Vancouver airport, when a Polish immigrant died during a confrontation with police in which he was stunned five times.
"People now recognize that the Taser is painful, and maybe they're thinking that it will kill them, and they are co-operating too," Kennedy told reporters in a conference call on the new statistics.
The commission, a government agency, is expected to issue a more comprehensive report on Taser use next week.
Police say it is a needed nonlethal alternative to firearms, but critics say not enough is known about how potentially deadly the shocks really are.
The RCMP reported using the weapons 1,106 times in 2008, down 30 percent from the year before. In nearly half the cases the weapon was not actually fired, compared with just 28 percent of the time in 2007, Kennedy said.
There was also a drop in the number of times officers used the weapon in "push-stun" mode, he said. In those cases it is used in a way similar to a cattle prod, a method of deployment he said was linked to most of the abuse allegations.
Although the RCMP has announced it plans to curb Taser use, Kennedy said the force's new rules have not yet been implemented so the drop in use probably reflects an awareness by rank and file officers about the safety and abuse concerns.
"I think there is something happening at the level of the officers," he said.
Critics say that despite the RCMP's announcement that Taser use would be curbed, the actual policy being drafted does not include needed restrictions on repeated shocks delivered to a suspect.
Kennedy is concerned the new policy was too vague, but he avoided directly criticizing it, and said he had told by the RCMP that his call to avoid repeated use of the weapon would be dealt with in new training programs.
The weapons are made by U.S.-based Taser International, which says there is no scientific evidence that the guns have been directly responsible for any deaths.
Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson