Residents push back against Taser use

A plan to arm Toronto’s frontline police officers with Tasers was met with stiff opposition at a public consultation Tuesday night at City Hall.

Roughly 80 residents and activists crowded into the council chamber for the meeting, which was called by the Toronto Police Services Board’s mental health subcommittee in response to a recent provincial decree that frontline officers, not just supervisors, should be permitted to carry stun guns.

Almost to a person, participants advised the board to reject the expanded use of the devices, which are also known as conducted energy weapons (CEWs), and focus instead on better training and de-escalation techniques.

Many of those who came to speak were psychiatric survivors or mental health workers who were concerned that police would disproportionately deploy Tasers against people in mental crisis.

One speaker, who only gave her name as Helen, said she was prone to manic episodes that can send her skipping down the street, swearing like a sailor, and unlikely to listen to authority figures. She fears that cops could interpret her behaviour as dangerous and hit her with a stun gun.

“When I’m manic, I’m not afraid of anything,” she said. “I could escalate to where they have to Taser me. I also have a heart condition. I don’t think [the police are] going to ask about that.”

Nicole Neverson, a researcher and associate professor of sociology at Ryerson University, said that she was part of a team studying the effects of Taser deployment in several jurisdictions. She argued that there are still too many unanswered questions about the safety of CEWs, and said no independent review of the most popular police model has ever been conducted.

“Expansion of CEW use appears to be ill-thought and hasty against the backdrop of major issues surrounding CEWs in Canada and the U.S.,” she said. “More independent scientific testing is required.”

Other speakers declared that the 2010 G20 abuses and the recent shooting of Sammy Yatim was proof the police couldn’t be trusted with additional weaponry.

“Raise your hands if you think that the G20 would have gone down better if the frontline police officers had Tasers,” Sakura Saunders asked the room. She was one of about 20 activists who marched in Nathan Phillips Square before the meeting under a banner that read “Disarm police.”

On August 27 Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Madeleine Meilleur announced that Ontario police forces could decide for themselves which officers were allowed to carry CEWs. Prior to the announcement, which had the full-throated support of police associations across the province, Ontario regulations decreed that only supervisors or specially designated officers could be equipped with the weapons.

At the time, the minister said that Tasers had been proven to reduce risk of injury for both the public and police officers.

According to a report that went before the police board in March, the Toronto Police Service had 571 of the devices as of December 31, 2012. They were carried by members of the SWAT-like Emergency Task Force, frontline supervisors, and supervisors of high-risk units like the organized crime and fugitive squads.

Toronto cops used the devices 255 times last year, but in 131 of those instances officers merely employed “demonstrated force presence,” meaning the Taser was displayed but not fired. Of the 255 instances, 111, or 43.5 per cent, involved people suffering some combination of mental distress, emotional disturbance, or intoxication.

The force has already signalled its desire to roll out Tasers to more of its members, starting as early as 2014. Earlier this month the police services board, which provides civilian oversight of the force, denied Chief Bill Blair’s request to set aside money for the devices in next year’s budget. They cost about $1,500 each.

Blair did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, but Deputy Chief Mike Federico said that despite its pro-Taser stance, the force would take into consideration the views that speakers expressed.

“I think tonight was an important part of the public discussions that need to occur before decisions are made around the deployment of CEWs,” he said.

But the deputy chief maintained that the weapons could help police safely resolve conflicts.

“Our position on the expanded deployment is that the CEWs offer one more option, and police should have as many options as possible to help defuse situations,” he said.

Alok Mukherjee, chair of the police services board, has expressed reservations about a major expansion of Taser use. He said that participants at the meeting had raised concerns “that cannot be ignored.”

“If the chief is going to bring forward a recommendation to implement the ministry regulation, his proposal will need to reflect some of the recommendations, the concerns that have been expressed today,” he said.

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