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Friday, April 23, 2010

More Tasers, less bullets means higher cost and legal change

April 22, 2010
Henry Stancu, Toronto Star

Chief Bill Blair would like to see all front line Toronto police officers equipped with conductive energy weapons (CEW) to avoid resorting to deadly firearms in violent situations when ever possible.

The chief’s annual report for 2009 CEW use — which he described as “the most comprehensive report of public accountability on the use of energy conducted weapons in any police service to our knowledge — shows Tasers were drawn 307 times in 273 incidents.

Taser use by Toronto police resulted in only two minor injuries, a scraped knee and a bump on the head, but no serious harm or death. There were 18 cases of unintentional discharge and the devices were used on animals in nine calls.

“By providing our people with the best equipment possible, the best training possible, I think we can actually save lives and save money by using our equipment and training appropriately,” Blair said during the Toronto police services board meeting Thursday.

His wish won’t be granted any time soon given the cost of Tasers in climate of civic fiscal restraint.

“It is a significant expense and given the financial situation with the city, the service and the province I think it unlikely there will be a very substantial investment in these in the near future,” said Blair.

It would also require current provincial guidelines for the use of Tasers to be amended.

In some cases merely unholstering, pointing, activating the laser sight or engaging the Taser’s warning electrical spark was found to be enough of a deterrent to cool a volatile situation.

This demonstrated force presence was effective in 45.4 per cent of the cases Toronto in which police used Tasers last year.

Taser use involving full deployment, in which the weapon was fired at a distance and the electrically-charged probes struck the subject, occurred in 41 per cent of the cases, while drive stun mode, where the device is pressed against a body and the current applied, was used in 13.6 per cent of the incidents.

About 40 per cent of those brought under control with Tasers were believed to be emotionally disturbed and/or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In many cases police used the weapons on people threatening to harm themselves or others.

“We’ve had quite a number of cases where people have been stabbing themselves. The police officer is certainly not going to discharge a firearm at such an individual. It’s an incredibly dangerous thing for an officer to wrestle the knife away,” said Blair.

While some prisoner and mental health advocacy groups criticize the use of Tasers as cruel, many more are supportive of the less lethal weapon in cases where an emotionally disturbed person is a danger to themselves and others.

“When we’ve had consultation on this, not only did mental health groups say ‘please look at Tasers as an option to guns’, but also numerous inquest juries have said that when dealing with people who are emotionally disturbed the Taser is the way to go,” said Mark Pugash,” director of the Toronto police public information unit.

“It’s impossible for the police officer to diagnose that mental illness. We can only respond to the action that we encounter . . . the police have to stop the situation and render it safe . . . disarm them and get them to treatment and hopefully save their lives,” the chief added.

In 2009 Tasers were also used in situations where suspects resisted arrest or were combative in investigations into gun calls, assaults, robbery, break-ins, domestic disturbances, search warrant details and various threatening situations.

Last year a total of 593 Taser X-26 models were issued to emergency task force officers, front line supervisors and team leaders in units such as holdup, intelligence, drugs, organized crime and fugitive squads.

Tasers record the time, date and number of discharges. They can even be equipped with cameras.

The X-26 model with laser sighting is listed at a base price of about $1,000 (U.S.). Then there are the added costs associated with accessories such as holsters, camera, the weapon’s service and maintenance requirements and training for officers in the use of the devices.

Blair acknowledges that outfitting all “first responders”, or front line Toronto officers with Tasers will require both a significant financial commitment and changes in legislation.

A two-year provincial review issued last month called Tasers “an effective, less lethal weapon” for law enforcement and set a guideline for their use in Ontario.

The review followed the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski in 2007 after he was hit by Tasers during a confrontation with RCMP at Vancouver International Airport.

Rick Bartolucci, minister of community safety and correctional services, said he had no plans to expand the use of the devices as they are only authorized for use in tactical or hostage rescue situations, for perimeter control and by front line supervisors.

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