Critics of Taser use say de-escalation, not weaponry, should be emphasized

WATCH:  Critics say issuing more Tasers is not the answer. Mark Carcasole reports. 

TORONTO – Rank-and-file police officers in Ontario will soon be allowed to use Tasers. But should de-escalation tactics be emphasized over weaponry, even the non-lethal kind?

Minister of Community Safety Madeleine Meilleur announced Tuesday that frontline officers can carry Tasers. The move will save lives, she said.

But critics argue this tackles the wrong problem, giving officers easier access to weapons instead of training them to calm a situation so the weapon isn’t needed.

Prior to this announcement, only supervisors and Emergency Task Force officers were allowed to use the conductive-energy weapons. While the province rewrites the rules, it isn’t clear whether it will regulate how police use Tasers, or what training’s required before they do. In fact, the province is allowing each local police force to determine whether it will further deploy Tasers.

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Toronto Police Services Association Mike McCormack welcomed the policy shift, noting his organization had been advocating for broad deployment of tasers for five years.

“A lot of people have been talking that – could this have made a difference in Sammy Yatim shooting?” McCormack said, adding that it’s impossible to actually determine.

“However, officer Forcillo, one of the first things he did when he arrived on scene was request a Taser – asked for one to be brought to the scene.”

Yatim was shot multiple times, then hit with a Taser after brandishing a knife while aboard a 505 Dundas Street West streetcar in July. It isn’t clear whether the 18-year-old was already dead when he was shot with the Taser.

Meilleur said Tuesday that deploying tasers throughout the province could “increase community safety by preventing injury and death.”

The Ministry of Community Safety cited 12 coroner’s inquest juries that recommended the expanded deployment of tasers in Ontario. In all 12 cases, someone died as a result of the altercation with police.  In eight of those cases, the person died of a single or multiple gunshot wounds. In three of the other four deaths, the cause of death is listed as involving cocaine.

But the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) said Tasers have been misused in the past and governments should work to teach de-escalation techniques rather than enhance a police officer’s arsenal.

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“The only acceptable use of a Taser is if there is an imminent risk of death or serious harm to the police officer or others,” Sukanya Pillay, interm general counsel of the CCLA, said in an interview Tuesday. She added that Tasers “can cause death.”

The rules for deployment used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police require officers to use de-escalation techniques or other “crisis intervention techniques” where “tactically feasible” before using a taser.

And the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Ontario released a policy paper in 2008 advocating de-escalation techniques be used before tasers.

A 2011 study conducted by the National Institute of Justice in the United States suggested there is “no conclusive medical evidence” that indicates a high risk of serious injury of death in healthy people from direct or indirect exposure to conductive-energy devices. But the study noted tasers should generally not be used more than once on a person.

“I think it’s an unfortunate and terrible mistake to extend Taser use,” said Toronto lawyer Peter Rosenthal.

Rosenthal represented the family of Michael Eligon, who escaped from Toronto East General Hospital on February 3, 2012 after undergoing a 72-hour mental health examination. A few hours after absconding, he was holding a pair of scissors when confronted by multiple police officers.

After a brief confrontation, Eligon was shot and killed.

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“Unfortunately de-escalation is not done very often on the street and we can see that in the Sammy Yatim case, the Michael Eligon case and so on,” Rosenthal said. “A bunch of officers are there and they’re all just screaming at the victim instead of anybody trying to approach him or trying to calmly cool things down.”

Rosenthal said expanding a police officer’s arsenal of non-lethal weapons to include tasers puts the emphasis on weaponry rather than trying to defuse a situation, which he said “will work sometimes if it is tried.”

Officers should be trained to distinguish between violent suspects and those who may have a disability, Pillay said.

“Is this a situation of serious imminent risk?” she asked. “Or rather, is this a situation where somebody might have a disability? For example, they may not be able to hear what you’re saying or they may not understand what you’re saying, or they may have a mental illness or an addiction issue.”

Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin is currently investigating the province’s guidelines for de-escalation techniques.

-With files from Mark Carcasole

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