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Friday, December 10, 2010

(Ontario) Police rarely use stun guns

December 10, 2010

Special Investigations Unit director Ian Scott's view that a stun gun killed a Collingwood man may cause officers to think twice about using them, one local police chief said.

But Saugeen Shores Police Chief Dan Rivett said Thursday in an interview that doesn't mean police should stop using conducted energy weapons when called for.

The stun gun death of an agitated, schizophrenic man by a Collingwood police officer is the latest incident in which concerns about police use of these devices have been raised.

This time though, it was the SIU director who said he thinks the stun gun caused Aron Firman's death.

Firman, 27, died after being Tasered by Collingwood OPP June 24 outside a group home in Collingwood.

SIU director Ian Scott concluded this week the use of the Taser "was not excessive, notwithstanding the fact that it caused Mr. Firman's demise."

No charges were justified against the officer, Scott found, because the officer's training shouldn't have led him to expect the device would kill.

Ontario's chief forensic pathologist, Michael Pollanen, attributed Firman's death to "cardiac arrhythmia precipitated by electronic control device deployment in an agitated man." He had underlying health issues which may have predisposed him to arrhythmia, Pollanen found.

The victim's father has called for Tasers to be re-classified as "potentially lethal weapons."

Sgt. Pierre Chamberland, an OPP corporate spokesman in Orillia, said the SIU finding will prompt a review of all policies related to deploying a Taser, as required under the Police Services Act. But they're still being used now. He wouldn't say how often the OPP use their Tasers, saying it's an "operational matter, we don't release that." He also said whether using handcuffs or guns, "we are trained with the fact that with any use of force there is an inherent risk of serious injury or death."

No Saugeen Shores officers have ever fired their conducted energy weapons since they were issued them in 2007. But Rivett says they still have their place. "Sure, does it make you give pause and think twice? Absolutely it does. But that in turn could put you in jeopardy or a member of the public," he said. He hopes the Collingwood death of a man won't cause his officers to hesitate when they shouldn't, he said. "That's a real concern. So there's a very delicate balance there that police officers are put into every day."

Training and guidelines set out when a Taser may be used, one step short of employing deadly force with a firearm, he said.

Owen Sound police sergeants continue to use Tasers, under escalating use-of-force guidelines too. "We haven't changed our policy and they're still in use in Owen Sound," Deputy-Chief Bill Sornberger said Wednesday in an interview. So far this year, Tasers have been drawn eight times and fired twice in the city, he said.

He declined to comment on any possible implications of the SIU conclusion that a stun gun shock killed Firman. Sornberger said he wanted to read more about the circumstances and information from the SIU before commenting further.

Grey County OPP officers who are qualified to use stun guns do so "extremely infrequently," said Bob Mahlberg, the detachment commander in Chatsworth. He didn't have the statistics available to say how often and said a freedom of information request could be filed. The devices, which cause muscles to involuntarily contract, are used to gain immediate control of someone, where other options were ineffective or precluded, he said. "From what I have heard so far, there is no change in policy. We are aware of the (SIU) decision. We are aware of the comments made by the director of the SIU," Mahlberg said.

Grey County OPP Const. Steve Starr said conducted energy weapons are not used frequently but they can be used successfully. He cited a man at a group home recently who struck another man with a fire poker in the presence of police who was taken into custody without incident after being stunned.

Mahlberg said a police officer is always responsible for the amount of force used on an individual, whether he or she employs physical force or use-of-force equipment. "It's required under the criminal code and we are only allowed to use as much force as is reasonably necessary to do our job."

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