The case of an 11-year-old boy who was stunned with an RCMP taser in British Columbia is yet another reminder that police shouldn't be investigating themselves, says the head of a wide-ranging public inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski.
The Mounties have asked West Vancouver police to investigate what happened when the boy was jolted with a taser in Prince George last Thursday.
The RCMP said the boy was considered a suspect in the stabbing of 37-year-old man, although neither the Mounties nor the West Vancouver police have explained what prompted an officer to fire the taser, what other options were used first, or whether the boy was holding a weapon when he was stunned.
Former appeal court judge Thomas Braidwood, who oversaw two sets of public hearings following Dziekanski's 2007 death at Vancouver's airport, said the case underscores his call for a civilian-led body to investigate the conduct of police.
“The most significant and important weapon the arsenal of any police force is public support, and the way to get public support is to have an independent body investigate situations like that,” Mr. Braidwood said in an interview Sunday.
“If the other tribunal is not in place, then I can see that [calling in the West Vancouver police]is the way it would have to be, but I don't agree that is the correct solution, because there is a camaraderie and other matters that exist between police forces – and indeed, so there should be, they have to support each other – so it doesn't quite go far enough.”
Mr. Braidwood was appointed to examine what happened when four RCMP officers confronted Mr. Dziekanski – a Polish immigrant who was agitated, confused and didn't speak English – at Vancouver's airport in October, 2007. Within seconds of their arrival, the officers stunned Mr. Dziekanski multiple times with a taser, and he died shortly after.
Mr. Braidwood first conducted hearings into the broad issues surrounding taser use, and later examined Mr. Dziekanski's death in detail.
In his report into Mr. Dziekanski's death, he called on the B.C. government to create an independent body to investigate cases involving police conduct, similar to agencies in place in Ontario and Alberta.
The provincial government has since pledged to create such a body and the RCMP has promised to use it in cases involving its own officers, but it has so far not materialized.
Mr. Braidwood said he's still confident the province will follow through.
“They accepted all of the recommendations, so I'm very pleased with them about that,” said Mr. Braidwood. “I just wish they'd hurry up.”
Mr. Braidwood declined to comment about the specifics of the Prince George case.
While his reports didn't make any recommendations about the use of tasers on youth, one of them said children, because of their small size, could be at an elevated risk from a taser jolt.
Mr. Braidwood's 2009 report on taser use in B.C. also concluded a taser jolt can be deadly in certain rare cases, and called for tighter restrictions on their use. That finding prompted Taser International to challenge Mr. Braidwood's findings in court, but a judge ruled against the company.
The document noted only two police forces in the province – Victoria and Saanich – had policies advising offers to avoid using tasers on “very young” suspects, though that term wasn't defined. The RCMP did not have such a policy when Mr. Braidwood issued his report, and no one from the force was available to comment Sunday about whether that's changed.
A separate report released last year by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP identified 194 cases between 2002 and 2009 in which the force deployed tasers on subjects aged 13 to 17, including two 13-year-olds. None were as young as 11.
As for the incident in Prince George, Simon Fraser University criminologist David MacAlister said the “extremely young age” of the boy adds to the questions the investigation must answer – especially to address the public controversy it has already generated.
“To hear that somebody as young as 11 was on the receiving end of a big jolt came as a bit of a surprise,” said Mr. MacAlister, who stressed it was impossible to make any conclusions about the officers' conduct without knowing exactly what happened.
“What were the police thinking? What alternative responses were they contemplating? You have to wonder what happened in the situation to merit the use of a taser.”
B.C.’s representative for children and youth is considering launching her own investigation.