As the police services board warms up to tasers and Toronto police prepare a pilot project to arm supervising frontline officers with the stun guns, stats on last year's use are raising questions.
The Emergency Task Force (ETF) deployed the weapon 66 times in 2005. During weapons and shooting calls, the gun's use meant the avoidance of lethal force. But the circumstances surrounding other occasions evoke chilling images: in the course of an eviction, during the execution of a search warrant, and, three times, during the removal of prisoners from their cells.
Tasers were used nine times on weapons calls, four times on domestic abuse calls, three times during cell extraction and six times during pursuits and "resist arrest' incidents jointly. They were used most often in one particular situation: incidents involving emotionally disturbed persons (EDPs), representing 30 per cent of all ETF calls. This fact worried board member Hamlin Grange.
Grange asked whether the ETF contacts the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team (MCIT), a partnership with St. Michael's Hospital that pairs nurses with plainclothes officers for the purpose of resolving EDP calls without arrest. He was informed they do not.
"Why wouldn't they communicate with the MCIT?' he asked. "The taser can kill people [in emotional distress]. We've seen research on that. So why not use resources that are at your beck and call?'
ETF Staff Sargeant Doug Walker responded that the ETF only attends calls where a situation has escalated or seems about to escalate into violence. "I don't think it's a good idea to put health care workers in that kind of situation.'
Vice-chair Pam McConnell wondered whether the presence of the MCIT has had a mitigating impact on taser use. Chief Bill Blair pointed out that only limited data is available. But given that 11, 14, 51 and 52 Divisions, where the MCIT currently operates, account for only six of the 27 taser uses on EDPs, that question may be worth following up.
Walker enthusiastically recounted an instance in which the presence of a taser averted the need for officers to use physical violence. "[The suspect] recognized the taser and dropped [his] knife immediately. It turns out he was only defending himself from his father, and this was a very valuable 'demonstrated force presence' for this young man.'
Walker said that increased public recognition of the weapon has increased "compliance' with officers.
But the compliance' secured by the presence of a taser would be much different for a front-line officer than for a tactical officer. Where the taser allows the ETF to rely more on persuasion, it could give beat cops, if they were so armed, more power to intimidate.
McConnell was also interested in the fact that the ETF simply displayed the weapon much more often than they used it, while the Public Safety Unit (riot police) fired it more often than using it as a deterrent, raising questions of whether front-line training was insufficient.
Blair replied that given the relatively few uses by the PSU (11 in total), he did not "want to leap to that conclusion."
But no one seems to mind leaping from the pilot project to widespread taser use. In a letter from the Police Accountability Coalition, John Sewell "urge[d] the board to rethink deployment so the city's good record of taser use to date can be maintained."
"I don't agree,' said McConnell. "I think we are moving to a point where tasers are going to be deployed.'