A one-shot deal: Liveblogging the Public Safety committee’s one-day study into Taser use

POSTMEETING ITQ MICRORECAP: Well, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott did his best to persuade members of the Public Safety committee that his organization has taken at least some of its recommendations on Taser use to heart, but he didn’t make much headway in assuaging the concerns of opposition members. Government members, in contrast, were more than satisfied by the response from the RCMP, and were more interested in hearing about all the lives that have been saved by judicious use of the device. Oh, and yes, since his last appearance, Elliott has, in fact, been Tasered: It “hurt like hell, and then it stopped.”

POSTMEETING ITQ MICRORECAP: Well, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott did his best to persuade members of the Public Safety committee that his organization has taken at least some of its recommendations on Taser use to heart, but he didn’t make much headway in assuaging the concerns of opposition members. Government members, in contrast, were more than satisfied by the response from the RCMP, and were more interested in hearing about all the lives that have been saved by judicious use of the device. Oh, and yes, since his last appearance, Elliott has, in fact, been Tasered: It “hurt like hell, and then it stopped.”

Read the full report after the jump.

Finally, a meeting that doesn’t involve supplementary estimates! Not that we don’t love those too, of course. Can’t wait for committee of the whole!

Anyway, this morning, the Public Safety committee puts RCMP Commissioner William Elliott on the hot seat to discuss “the Conductive Energy Weapon-Taser.”  As the schedule currently stands, this is the only meeting that the committee plans to hold on the issue, so you can bet that MPs on both sides of the table will want to make the most of it.
8:43:56 AM
So, you know how ITQ is usually ridiculously early for committee meetings, and ends up sitting in a corner making the people setting up the room nervous? Well, today, she’s not alone! No less an intimidating personage than the Commissioner of the RCMP arrived just moments after ITQ, looking much less waterlogged than she did, and accompanied by a full contingent of fully be-uniformed Mounties. “Who has a copy of my statement?” he wonders aloud before helping himself to a coffee.

8:50:10 AM
A quirk of this particular committee room – 371 West Block, which also houses the Ethics committee when they don’t commandeer one of the Big Rooms off the Hall of Honour – has no table reserved for the media, which means we have to encroach on territory otherwise reserved for political staff.

Speaking of media, so far I think it’s just me and the Toronto Star, but there may be a few hanging around outside until the meeting gets underway, which should be pretty soon. I didn’t realize that Garry Breitkreuz is the chair — that should make things interesting if his private members’ bill to abolish the gun registry ever makes it through second reading, which I’m betting won’t happen, but you never know.

The room is filling up – most of the members are already here, including one of ITQ’s favourite interrogators, Serge Menar, whose short, deceptively simple questions witnesses attempt to evade at their peril.

8:57:43 AM
Yay, more media: the Canadian Press is here! Also, for Olaf’s benefit, I should note that for the first time in ages, there is a tray of breakfasty snacks on the table at the back of the room, although I’m pretty sure I’d be tackled and shackled if I attempted to sneak a croissant.

8:59:56 AM
And – we’re on! The chair introduces the witnesses – the aforementioned Elliott, and Darrel Madill – and the Commissioner begins his opening statement by stating that the RCMP still believes that CEWs, which is what we are apparently going to be calling them today, are a good tool to protect the public, and law enforcement officers, and then delivers a brief overview on the current policy, particularly in the light of the recommendations of the last committee report, which was tabled last year.

9:04:23 AM
Elliott quotes from three different studies, released over the last year or so, the collective gist of which is that most of the time, CEW use has little risk of injury, although law enforcement and medical personnel should be mindful of the possibility, and notes that the RCMP’s experience “reinforce the use of CEWs” in some circumstances, as was the case last December, when RCMP officers were called to the home of a man whose son was armed with a knife and an axe; the CEW was deployed on the son to restrain him. Afterwards, the son told the officers that he wasn’t hurt, and considering that the Mounties might otherwise have been forced to shoot him, it all ended happily ever after, considering the alternative.

9:08:27 AM
Elliott is going through the list of committee recommendations, one by one – in some cases, he notes, the RCMP actually went further, like how it requires yearly re-certification rather than every two years, which is what the report called for. The RCMP also works with various medical and mental health organizations, and monitors conferences, reports and research findings to keep up with the latest developments.

9:11:29 AM
So far, the RCMP has released two quarterly reports on CEW use, and has another in the pipeline, and man, the Mounties are as enchanted with acronyms as the military, isn’t it? Maybe it has something to do with personality types, and maintaining control even over the language itself.

Okay, that’s it for the opening remarks; the chair thanks him, and reminds everyone of the order of questioning, which, I swear, has never been as contentious an issue at committee than it has so far this session.

9:14:09 AM
Mark Holland gets things started for the Liberals, and asks whether Elliott has discussed the committee report with the Public Safety Minister; he is disturbed, he says, that until today, they’ve not been able to get any response from the government on their recommendations — and some of Elliott’s answers today do little to assuage his concerns. For instance, the studies that he cited were all conducted in the United States, in most cases by law enforcement agencies, which doesn’t meet the threshold for “independent”, in his opinion, and wonders what his response is to the only study carried out in Canada – by the CBC – which, according to Holland, found that the CEW may be *more* dangerous than thought.

Elliott humphes a little and points out that the three studies cited aren’t the *only* ones that the RCMP has monitored; as for the CBC report, he says that they are “very aware” of the study, and were aware of some of the issues even before the broadcast, and commissioned a full study of all the weapons in inventory, which is still in progress.

“We haven’t ignored any of the recommendations,” he tells Holland, who doesn’t seem remotely mollified, and repeats his criticism of the studies cited, the only one of which that was peer-reviewed was a “retrospective” of people who had experienced the CEW, “not of the weapon itself.”

9:19:26 AM
The term “impact weapon” is “not helpful” from the RCMP’s point of view, Elliott tells Holland – and he doesn’t believe there’s a problem with how the CEW is currently classified.

9:21:28 AM
Serge Menard, in his typically understated style, does the first round Bloc Quebecois; he recalls that the arrival of “Tasers” was viewed with optimism, as far as providing another way to restrain people, yet studies – including, he says, those submitted by the manufacturer itself – showed that it may have been more dangerous than they initially thought, although he’s glad to see that other studies not funded in part by the manufacturer have been done.

Onto the CBC report, he wonders if the RCMP plans to test *all* its weapons to see if there are any that have higher than expected dispatches. Elliott notes that the reason they were aware of the concern before the broadcast was because the CBC contacted the Mounties; so far, sixty devices have been tested, beginning with the oldest, and that will continue.

9:26:26 AM
Menard wonders if any of the weapons tested so far have indicated higher currents; so far, according to Elliott, two weapons have shown some variance, but nothing concerning the output of the weapon, or its impact on individuals being greater than anticipated. Menard wonders why the CBC study revealed such different results, and asks if the RCMP submitted *its* conclusions to the broadcaster; they’re happy to share the results with the committee, and have already gone back to the experts hired by the CBC to look into the devices.

9:29:36 AM
NDP rookie Jack Harris begins his round by concurring with Elliott that, in cases like that with the axe-wielding son that he described in his opening statement, the CEW is definitely better than the alternative, but isn’t sure about the wording of the guidelines to officers. Isn’t “threat to public safety” a little vague? Elliott reads from the policy, which goes into more detail, and notes that the use of the weapon must be “necessary” and tells Harris that the RCMP believes that the current instructions are “adequate.”

9:33:31 AM
Harris just doesn’t seem to be satisfied with that answer; he points to the recent case where a CEW was used on a fourteen year old girl in custody. Shouldn’t the guidelines be more specific? Elliott goes into a lengthy defence of the status quo, and warns against any policy or directives that could curtail the exercise of discretion. “The policies that we have do that,” he insists. There are mechanisms within the system, and he is very concerned at the notion of being “overly prescriptive” in its directives. He also can’t answer Harris’ question about how many of the 3,000 plus complaints investigated by the RCMP Public Complaints Commission were related to Tasers.

9:37:43 AM
Norlock wonders how much these weapons tests will cost, and the answer seems to be roughly $1,000 a day; given the cost, Elliott agrees that it may not make sense to test every single one of the more than 2,000 weapons in use, so they’re working on a protocol.

On to the reports, Norlock asks if these will – or could – show how many lives have been saved — wouldn’t that be like putting out non-crime statistics, like the number of people not murdered in a given year? – and Elliott says that as yet, that isn’t. Oh, and he also grouches a little than when law enforcement bodies are “hauled” before committee, too often, the public only hears the negative. What about balance?

9:45:04 AM
Buffet mutiny: At least three spectators are currently munching croissants! What happened to the rule that only members and staff were allowed to partake of the pastry goodness?

9:46:23 AM
Okay, back to the Q&A: a Liberal — not sure which one, because as usual, none of the nameplates are visible from here — oh, it’s Rob Oliphant, who just doesn’t see evidence that the RCMP is following the recommendations; as he sees it, the Mounties are simply unwilling to give up the “unbridled” use of the weapon. The burden on him, as an MP, is to make sure that *citizens* are safe, and he just doesn’t believe that the report has been heeded.

Not surprisingly, Elliott disagrees, particularly the use of the word “unbridled”, which really seems to have set him on edge: there have been significant changes, he says. He repeats much of what he said in his opening statement about the various ways in which the RCMP responded to the report, including those reports – not just of firing the device but threatening to fire – which are forwarded “immediately” to the RCMP Public Complaints Commission. In his view, they have responded, and have taken steps to reduce its use.

9:51:46 AM
A new face – at least to ITQ – on the Conservative side of the table: Phil McColeman, who gets a bit grumpy over the suggestion that the devices are being used “willy-nilly” – he wants to know more about what Mounties are telling the organization about the use of the weapons. Madill points out that most of the information comes from the usage reports, which are reviewed locally as well; McColeman wants to know if these reports include questions about possible alternative outcomes if the weapon *hadn’t* been used.

9:56:28 AM
After McColeman finally winds down his impromptu monologue on what a good idea it would be to include all that wonderful alternate scenario information would be, Elliott has to remind him that, in general, it’s not always a good idea to focus so heavily on speculation, although he agrees with the basic theory behind it.

9:58:33 AM
Back to the Bloc Quebecois, and Maria Mourani, who wonders how many people have been shot to death by the RCMP versus those who have died as a result of CEWs; Elliott says that unfortunately, the first still greatly outnumber the second, and promises to get her the full data.

She then asks if there is any data to support the theory that the use of CEWs has actually reduced the number of deaths by firearms, and although Elliott says he has “no doubt” that the Taser has saved lives, but admits that as yet, there is no definitive hard data that supports this contention. He does have examples, like the one he provided earlier, and anecdotal evidence from what he’s heard from officers, but no, he can’t point to statistics to back up his feelings, which don’t, as yet, seem to be sufficient to persuade Mourani on their own.

When someone is shot, it almost always results in serious injury, Elliott points out. That isn’t the case with CEWs.

10:06:05 AM
Newbie Conservative Blake Richards nearly starts an intracommittee brawl by suggesting that Oliphant’s comments about putting public safety first somehow indicated his lack of support for the RCMP, which prompts a flurry of annoyed points of order from Oliphant and Holland; he eventually delivers a non-apology apology about how he’s sorry that he misunderstood the comments, and then moves on to a rambling non-question about how it’s important to make sure that all the paperwork that Mounties have to fill out won’t put public safety at risk. I’m pretty sure they don’t have to fill out the forms until after they’ve saved the day and gotten their man, Blake.

Anyway, eventually, he asks how many officers currently carry CEWs, and Elliott notes that not every Mountie will always have one in hand (or holster) — he, too, claims that, although the RCMP is obviously deeply committed to ensuring the safety of its officers, his first priority is the safety of the public. Oddly, Richards doesn’t then accuse *him* of showing insufficient respect for the officers on the ground.

As for paperwork, Elliott agrees that there is an increasing “administrative burden” on Mounties, and assures Richards that the RCMP is looking into that.

10:14:20 AM
Before handing the floor over to Andrew Kania, the chair asks a not entirely obviously relevant question on the growing risk of transmission by bodily fluids – ew – which Elliott agrees is a factor in ensuring police safety. When he gets his turn at the mic, Kania asks if the RCMP advises the use of CEWs based on that risk, but Elliott says that’s not the case. That was a weird little diversion.

10:16:40 AM
In response to Kania’s question about the mechanics of the Taser – is there a crackle? What about malfunctions? Elliott reveals that since his last appearance before committee, he *has* been Tasered, and describes the experience in less than gory detail. Kania refers him to recent testimony in the Dryznski inquiry, and asks if the officers in that case were wrong to re-use the device after the “crackling”, but Elliott – not surprisingly – refuses to discuss an ongoing hearing.

Given that Elliott isn’t actually certified to use a Taser, Kania wonders if there may not be someone at a senior level who would be “more appropriate” to testify before this committee, and Elliott tells him that there are likely several; he and Kania then get into a fairly spirited debate over the use of the word “impact weapon”.

10:20:28 AM
Back to the government – specifically, the parliamentary secretary, Dave Mackenzie, who is entirely satisfied by the RCMP’s response to the report, and just as entirely baffled by the problems that his “friends” on the other side. He then demonstrates the art of questioning the witness in order to embarrass the opposition, in this case, regarding the recommendation for an independent, peer-reviewed study. Elliott actually makes a point of stressing the continuing desire of the RCMP for more studies and reports.

10:27:27 AM
Back to Mark Holland, who once again dismisses at least one of the ostensibly independent studies – specifically, the one conducted by an “obscure Baptist university in the United States” – and once again makes the case for reclassifying the weapon, given the lingering “ambiguity”‘ that has led to Tasers being pulled on people who are “passively resisting.” Elliott doesn’t think much of the rather sweeping use of the word “obscure”, and notes that as of June 2008 – *after* the incidents to which Holland referred – to make it clear that the devices weren’t to be used in situations were people were merely resisting, but only if there is a risk to safety. That isn’t enough for Holland; he wants the most recent usage figures, not just assertions.

10:30:26 AM
Moving on to the use of Tasers on minors, Holland asks if the RCMP has “ceased the practice” of allowing this to occur. As it turns out, not exactly – unfortunately, Elliott says, there are some minors out there who are “very dangerous people.” Huh.

10:33:24 AM
Menard asks how many RCMP officers are currently certified to use Tasers – 6,000, apparently – and wonders if those who are so qualified are told to use them only in cases where there is a threat of violence. No, they aren’t, Elliott says – they don’t train officers to respond with *like* force, but greater force.

10:37:36 AM
Menard wonders about what the RCMP is doing to ensure the presence of mental health personnel on hand when dealing with disturbed individuals, and Elliott reminds him that the vast majority of offenders are, in fact, suffering from addiction or mental health, which allows Menard to point out that, in the axe-wielding incident discussed and rediscussed already, it might have been a good idea to have someone with mental health training on hand, given that the guy was threatening his father with an axe and all, but Elliott notes that, while that “would have been nice”, the priority was to protect his dad.

10:39:40 AM
Jack Harris observes that for a while, he was worried that there was a lack of “common vocabulary” right here at this meeting, given the fact that Elliott was, at least for a while, referring to CEWs, but has now joined the rest of the committee in calling them “Tasers”. Elliott reminds him that “Taser’ is, in fact, a specific brand name, but acknowledges that all the devices currently in the RCMP inventory are Tasers. This leads him into a diatribe during which he notes that last week, there was a CBC report with the headline “Husband supports use of Taser on wife,” at which all and sundry try not to snicker.

10:44:28 AM
Back to Mackenzie, who once again uses his time to give Elliott the chance to further rebut opposition assertions — this time, Menard’s point about having mental health personnel present — which the Commissioner does.

10:47:36 AM
And with that, we’re done – well, those of us who aren’t on the committee, since they’re apparently going in camera for a few minutes. Since I’m going to be here for the next meeting as well – it’s a West Blockian kind of day, apparently – I’m hanging out in the hallway, waiting for the changing of the guard.

After a surprisingly hearty impromptu exchange of greetings between Elliott and Wayne Easter, who will, of course, be at the Agriculture meeting that is about to get started, the commissioner scrums with a small but intense huddle of reporters – mostly CBC, not surprisingly – but doesn’t say much beyond what he told the committee. On the variance in testing results between the RCMP and the CBC, he once again defers to experts.
As for being Tasered: “It hurt like hell, and then it stopped.” So – not all that different from a particularly tense committee appearance, then.

Alright, I’m going to take a quick jaunt to cafeteria — if any of y’all who have made it this far want to find out how the next meeting unfolds, you might want to check the next thread.