The investigation is about the use of Tasers by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the national police force with a storied history that does most of the front-line policing in the Western provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. In the latest installment, we analyzed the 2008 data that we compiled from information from the force's 2008 Taser-use forms. We determined that there were at least 16 instances (we were being ultra conservative) in which the police used Tasers on someone five times or more, and in most of those instances the person was unarmed. And this was after the highly-publicized death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died at the Vancouver International Airport in October 2007 after being zapped five times. There is an inquiry examining the details of his death, which a bystander videotaped. Over the past few years, there has also been increasing evidence that multiple zaps can be dangerous, even deadly, which made our story that much more poignant. A parliamentary committee examining Taser use will be re-calling the RCMP commissioner to testify after the Easter break in light of our findings.
How did you get started? (tip, editor assignment, etc.)
We knew that the RCMP and an increasing number of municipal police forces were using the Taser, the heavily marketed product of Pheonix-based Taser International. The problem was, there was no data. So we used the federal access-to-information law to obtain the forms, which were heavily censored. However, there were enough details that could be plugged into a database that allowed us to tell stories about the percentage of people who were unarmed, taken to hospitals, etc. These are important stories to tell because they open up a window into the actions of police, not only for Tasers, but for other devices used to control suspects. The stories can also force the police to release more information.
What were the key sources? (people, documents, etc.)
We obtained the RCMP's Taser-use forms. Then created a database using Access.
What was the biggest roadblock you had to overcome?
Getting the RCMP to release more information. When we obtained the first batch of forms last year (some four thousand forms covering a period from 2002-2007), they were heavily censored. Thus, we were only able to tell a story about the increased use of Tasers, which had doubled in the space of a few years. This was explained, in part, by the fact that an increasing number of officers were being trained. But what was also clear from the data that did initially include the officer's name, was that some officers were showing up in the database many, many times. The public outcry our initial stories created forced the RCMP to release a bit more information that allowed us to determine if the person was carrying a weapon. They also included some detail from their narrative fields in which they described the circumstances that lead to the firing of the weapon.
Do you have any advice for journalists working on a similar story?
Find out what forms your local police force uses to track the weapons they use. Even if the information is censored, there's still probably enough detail for initial stories that could lead to an interesting and important conversation in your community. We, for instance, are now expanding our effort to the dozens of municipal police forces across the country.