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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tasers often used on mentally ill, police disclose

April 20, 2010
Kelly Grant ,Globe and Mail

Toronto police zapped or threatened with stun guns at least 50 people with mental-health problems last year, according to a new report that provides the most detailed information yet on how local officers use the controversial weapon.

The 50 suspects escorted to a psychiatric facilities after tasering incidents in 2009 are part of a broader category of 80 “emotional disturbed” subjects who make up about one-third of those tasered by Toronto Police.

They narrowly edged out drunks and drug users as the most frequent targets of conducted energy weapons, but most of the at least 246 citizens who wound up on the wrong end of a taser last year had some combination of substance abuse, mental illness or emotional trouble.

Hilary Homes, a security campaigner for Amnesty International Canada, called the report a rare instance of hard numbers on tasers and the mentally ill that confirms the group’s suspicions.

“Even though we’re at a point where there definitely has been advances in the testing and understanding of the device, there’s still a recognition they’re more likely to be used on vulnerable groups,” she said.

The new mental-health statistics are part of a police annual report on stun guns, which concluded officers deployed the weapons less often last year than the year before.

In 2009, tasers were used 307 times in 273 incidents, down from 367 times in 329 incidents in 2008. Of the 273 incidents last year, 18 involved officers accidentally firing the machine’s electronic probes during tests and nine involved animals, mostly dogs. That brings the number of people either threatened, stunned or shot with a taser down to at least 246. More than one person was involved in some of the incidents.

In 45 per cent of the 2009 cases, officers simply threatened people with a lit-up taser; in the rest they either jolted subjects directly or shot the device’s electronic probe from a short distance away. Of the 50 Mental Health Act taser incidents, only 26 involved police actually using the taser.

“The fact that [some suspects] may be taken to a hospital under the Mental Health Act simply means that after the situation was made safe, the officer believed the best place for this individual was in a psychiatric facility,” said Staff Superintendent Mike Federico, manger of Toronto Police’s conducted energy weapon program. “It’s not the condition that prompts the officer’s response, it’s the behaviour. That’s what they’re trained to do.”

Staff Supt. Federico said he couldn’t explain the overall decline. The force hasn’t formally studied why officers are using less frequently a weapon that has been the subject of intense public scrutiny since the death of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant who died after being shocked repeatedly at the Vancouver airport in 2007.

“It’s no doubt officers’ good judgment being exercised, but it could just as easily be the result of fewer incidents where police are called,” he said. “It’s certainly not due to any change in policy, practice or training.”

There has been a change, however, in the level of detail Toronto police provide in their yearly taser disclosure. Last year the Toronto Police Services Board, which will review this latest report at its meeting Thursday, ordered senior brass to add the mental-health data as well as data about how many taser subjects are “believed to be armed” or actually armed. The report determined police believed the suspect had a weapon in 64 per cent of the cases, but Staff Supt. Federico said the force didn’t have up-to-date numbers on how often weapons were confirmed.

The report also reveals that Toronto police used stun guns most often in 14 Division on the west side of downtown and that the device was used on two 15-year-olds, three men older than 60, 15 women, one deer and one especially feisty raccoon.

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