In the blur of stats, I could see the shape of danger when, on March 27, the Police Services Board pored over the report on taser use for last year.
In January 2007, for example, the report told us, there were 66 taser stun guns on the streets, carried by members of the Emergency Task Force.
By November, following initial training of front-line supervisors, 520 of these weapons were on the street.
By the end of the year, tasers had been “deployed” (meaning unholstered) 404 times and fired (either as darts or to deliver close-contact stuns) 264 times. That’s about one shock every day and a half.
If we were still working on the assumption, touted by the force and Police Services Board before purchasing tasers, that the weapon’s strength lies in its ability to reduce shooting deaths, this would be the time to ask whether a police shooting every 36 hours is a reasonable rate for Toronto.
But now that tasers are on the street and word is they are absolutely not a replacement for firearms, it’s unclear if they are replacing anything at all.
It should be noted that for each case in which a subject was labelled as “resistant,” a simple unholstering was enough – suggesting that the mere presence of a conducted-energy weapon can reduce the incidence of messy punch-ups.
But you could ask whether the pseudo-sidearm is being used to force compliance when a stern talking-to would suffice.
The board and the force have been mostly mum on specific guidelines for taser use, so we’re left to read between the lines of 2007’s incident chart.
For example, tasers were deployed 347 times in cases involving people perceived to be in emotional crisis. This may or may not account for the fact that their most frequent use by far was in 14 Division, which includes Parkdale. All very interesting, but none of this really tells us how arming sergeants with stun guns has worked out. The report isn’t exhaustive, but it has some numbers we might find useful. Post-crunching, we find a potential discussion point.
The Emergency Task Force was responsible for 20 per cent of all deployments and 15 per cent of all firings. Front-line supervisors were responsible for 80 per cent, and they fired the weapon 85 per cent of the time.
Most tellingly, front-line supervisors are less than half as likely as ETF officers to be in taserable situations where there’s a risk of “serious bodily harm/death,” yet they are nearly twice as likely to fire a taser.
Also interesting is the fact that “serious bodily harm” situations constituted 37 per cent of all taser unholstering in 2006, while in 2007, they made up only 12 per cent.
At the board meeting, Graeme Norton of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association aired this very concern. “This is what we call ‘usage creep,’” he said, recommending that the weapon be restricted only to more serious situations.
A quick YouTube search for the term “taser” does little to assuage such fears, providing more than a few grisly examples from American jurisdictions where the weapon is used regularly.
Of course, videos of reasonable or responsible deployment are less likely to make the Internet rounds.
“The Urban Alliance [on Race Relations] has received many calls from groups that work with youth, especially with the YouTube videos that are out there,” said UA representative Tam Goossen. “They are wondering, what are the circumstances for their use?”
According to a police document drafted in 2005 when tasers were being considered, the weapon can be used to protect an officer from being violently overpowered, prevent a prisoner from escaping, disarm someone and “control a potentially violent situation.”
According to the 2004 Ontario Use Of Force Model, “intermediate weapons” such as tasers can be used on people considered “active resistant,” “assaultive” or to be threatening serious bodily harm or death.
No one could reasonably object to the third category, and the first didn’t come up last year. It’s that middle term, “assaultive,” that seems to describe a grey area.
Lawyer Peter Rosenthal brought to my attention a relevant case. It concerns use of pepper spray – listed alongside tasers in the use-of-force model – at a raucous protest, and a police trainer’s later testimony on its use. A video of the incident at youtube.com/watch?v=ultj-bVuQPo shows, at the two-and-a-half-minute mark, an officer spraying a protester for standing close to a cruiser and verbally objecting to an arrest.
Watch the video, filmed by the CBC, and ask yourself whether the man pepper-sprayed was being “passive resistant,” “active resistant” or “assaultive.” (There is no “none of the above” in the model.)
Does your assessment agree with that of sergeant Greg Thorpe, Officer Safety Sergeant at C.O. Bick College, who testified on September 17 during the civil case that resulted from that altercation?
According to Thorpe, that young man’s behaviour was “active resistant to assaultive.” What makes it assaultive? “Closing the distance to the officers, challenging their authority, and moving contrary to their direction.” Also, “he was making comments.”
Thorpe said this justified the pepper spray, and that the video showed an example of proper use of intermediate weapons.
Speaking to the police board at last week’s meeting, George Tucker of the Toronto Police Association lauded the deployment of tasers, saying they “prevent violent interactions and confrontations.”
It’s true in some cases – how many depends on your definition of violence. Did that pepper spray victim have violence done to him? What if he’d been tasered?
“You’re not replacing guns,” said Rosenthal to the board. “So what are tasers for? That’s the question that’s not being asked enough. What are they for?”