Right now, only certain Ontario police officers carry tasers, but that's about to change.
Madeleine Meilleur, Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, announced this morning that the province will be relaxing its restrictions on tasers, allowing local police forces more discretion over which officers can carry them.
Currently, the province’s guidelines only permit police supervisors and members of special units to carry tasers. This policy has come under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of the death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, who was shot by Toronto police. James Forcillo, the police constable who has been charged with second-degree murder in the case, wasn’t senior enough to carry a taser, and therefore couldn’t have used one to subdue Yatim.
“Today, I am announcing that the ministry will be giving police services the ability to make their own deployment decisions when it comes to CEW use,” Meilleur told reporters, using the abbreviation for “conducted energy weapon,” a technical term for tasers. Asked if the province’s review of its taser rules was a reaction to Sammy Yatim’s death, Meilleur said, “Absolutely not.” The rule change, she said, would have come about regardless, and was in fact originally supposed to be announced in June, before Yatim was shot.
Meilleur added that the decision to expand taser use came about partly as a result of research that has found tasers to be less likely to cause injury or death than other types of weapons. Ontario’s Chief Coroner, Dirk Huyer, said that 12 separate coroner’s inquests had recommended consideration of expansion of taser use.
It would be up to individual police forces to buy tasers and issue them to their officers. Mike Frederico, Toronto’s deputy police chief, said the Toronto Police Service plans to take advantage of the opportunity.
Tasers have been criticized for causing death and injury, even though they’re ostensibly less harmful than guns or blunt-force instruments. A notorious case of taser overkill happened at Vancouver International Airport in 2007, when Robert Dziekański, a Polish immigrant, died after being electrocuted by police officers.
“The device has captured the public imagination, and rightly so. It’s new technology,” said Frederico. “The OACP [that is, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police] in particular…recognized that the device should have some more refined guidelines associated with it.” It’s expected that the province’s changes to its taser guidelines will include some new training and data-collection requirements.
Frederico described the existing guidelines for taser use in Ontario. “Currently,” he said, “the device is recommended to be used when the officer needs to take control—when there’s an absolute need for an officer to take control of a situation, or where the subject is presenting what’s considered to be assaultive behaviour. And that assaultive behaviour can be a threat of assault.”
He added that tasers are often effective as deterrents even when officers only threaten to use them. “Over the 273 times the device was used last year, over 140 times it was simply displayed.”
Some have questioned whether, rather than using force against seemingly mentally disturbed suspects like Sammy Yatim, the Toronto police should focus on defusing potentially violent situations by other means. Along those lines, and prompted by Yatim’s death, the Ontario ombudsman is leading an investigation into police de-escalation guidelines.
The Toronto Police Service is also conducting its own internal review of its practices while the Special Investigations Unit continues its investigation of the Yatim case.