Despite the fact that most British cops still patrol without a gun, I don't think there's a compelling case for disarming our police. And if cops are authorized to discharge a firearm to subdue a belligerent and aggressive target, why should we object to the use of tasers?
It's a question we should be addressing following reports last week that our cops used tasers against some angry soccer players from Chile.
It's generally accepted that prolonged or continuous exposure to the charge of the taser, a conducted energy weapon, can lead to serious medical complications, including respiratory failure.
In "touch-stun" mode, the weapon sends a 50,000-volt shock that causes overwhelming but momentary pain, while in "probe" mode it can fire dart-like electrodes up to 9 metres that override the target's sensory and nervous systems, resulting in temporary paralysis.
Amnesty International has documented 245 taser-related deaths worldwide, 15 of them in Canada, since 2001. No doubt these numbers are troubling, but the firearm is clearly still more dangerous than the taser.
Although data are difficult to obtain, it appears that on average police shootings kill 10 Canadians every year; 16 deaths a year occurred in 2004 and 2005.
The numbers actually mean very little, as the real question is whether the infliction of deadly force was justifiable in the circumstances.
The Criminal Code says little about police use of force. Use "reasonable force" is the Code's only sage advice. A brief perusal of the June 2007 report from the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP shows that some officers have a very unreasonable idea of what is reasonable.
The commission condemned the force for using attack dogs and tasers in a casual, routine manner. In one case, a police service dog was sent in to attack a fleeing suspect hiding in a bush despite the fact that officers were close by who could easily have caught the suspect if they had not been so averse to running.
In another, a short, intoxicated and belligerent woman was tasered twice in touch-stun mode after she had already been handcuffed. Apparently, the suspect was reluctant to enter the jail cell, and police tasered her as if "using a cattle prod" to move her into the cell.
The Special Investigations Unit in Ontario has been busy looking into fatalities and serious injuries caused by police use of force in the past few years. Since 2004, the unit has reviewed over 550 cases, and just last month it laid charges of assault against three Halton police officers for the alleged tasering of a 79-year-old man who fell and broke his hip.
But out of hundreds of cases, only eight charges against police have been laid as a result of the investigations.
The idealist will say the low charge rate demonstrates that most officers exercise good judgment and reasonable force, while the cynic will say the SIU is just a bunch of cops whitewashing their colleagues' actions.
The credibility of the cynics' view was enhanced a couple of weeks back when the provincial ombudsman, André Marin, was moved to initiate an investigation into the SIU after hearing numerous "serious allegations" that the unit was "not doing its job properly."
Enforcing the criminal law is not an exercise in etiquette and grace. Shit happens, and people get hurt whether the police are bare-fisted, wielding a baton, discharging a firearm or sparking a taser. So it is impossible to take an absolute position on the justifiability of packing a taser.
The focus of concern should always be on the mechanisms for accountability when someone claims that the police acted like bullies with dangerous toys.
If there is a mechanism for independently investigating allegations of police misconduct, with the possibility of real disciplinary sanctions, it's more likely that officers will act reasonably in the exercise of their duties.
As it stands, the unfortunate reality is that our current mechanisms for policing the police are woefully inadequate. Investigations are usually haphazard and incomplete, and when on rare occasions misconduct is found, disciplinary sanctions are toothless.
After the RCMP Commission found that an officer had used the taser like a cattle prod, the official response amounted to no more than an apology and some retraining of the aggressive officer. This is nonsense. If the tasering of a handcuffed woman was unjustified, then this particular act of policing constitutes the criminal offence of assault, and as a general rule, offering an apology does not give most people a free pass from prosecution.
So the real problem is not the weapon per se, but the lack of courage and resolve of those with the authority to punish taser-happy officers.