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Friday, March 12, 2010

EDITORIAL: Drop in Taser use shows police adjusting to concerns

March 12, 2010

The Use of Force report prepared by Greater Sudbury Police suggests the city's finest are using their Tasers responsibly -- their use has dropped despite an increase in confrontations -- but it's also interesting to see what happens when the zappers are not used.

In fact, the numbers for 2009 show that despite publicity surrounding questionable use of Tasers by other police forces -- most notably the RCMP -- a solid argument can be made for their use, if it's accompanied by appropriate training.

Police reported a jump in use of force incidents to 121 in 2009 from 95 the previous year. That in itself is not a concern. Use of force situations arise in many circumstances, from traffic stops to confrontations with suspects to injured animal complaints.

But that jump in incidents was accompanied by a drop in Taser use to just 11 times in 2009 from 23 the previous year.

Chief Frank Elsner cites better training on the devices for the drop in use.

Looking deeper into the numbers we find that when officers do not use Tasers to resolve confrontations, they're turning to "empty hand techniques" or drawing their guns. They are not turning to pepper spray or batons in higher numbers.

Consider that when an officer doing hand-to-hand combat with a suspect increases the chance of someone getting injured and drawing a gun increases the tension if the subject does not comply, it's possible to see why the police are not anxious to get rid of Tasers.

And the devices are effective at resolving confrontations. Officers reported that Taser use was 100% effective last year and 91% effective in 2008. By comparison, empty-hand techniques were effective 69% of the time last year (61% in 2008) and drawing and/or discharging weapons were effective 86% of the time (88% in 2008).

Which means Tasers tend to end confrontations more successfully, and in some cases with less potential for injury to the officer or the suspect. (Assuming the Taser was used responsibly, and not in the cowboy fashion that is sometimes caught on video and placed on YouTube.) Think of the 14% of the time in which officers drew their guns and the result was deemed not to be effective. That's a pretty tense situation.

Police report that 30% of the incidents involving use of force were to protect officers, 49% were to effect arrest, 3% were to protect the public and 13% were to destroy an animal.

The report also reminds us of the situations police officers face. They were confronted with an edged weapon 17 times, and a different type of weapon -- beer bottles, bats or a belt with metal studs -- five times. In most cases, incidents involved officers on patrol, and the distance between the officer and the suspect was less than two metres.

Numbers can never tell an entire story, but they do show that police appear to be sensitive to concerns about overuse of Tasers and officers have used reasonable alternatives to bring about the end of tense situations.

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