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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

EDITORIAL: Trailblazing on tasers

June 15, 2011
The Halifax Chronicle

THREE years ago, a mentally ill man died in custody 30 hours after being Tasered at an HRM police station. Howard Hyde’s heart stopped and he had to be revived. The subsequent inquiry determined that it was a restraint hold — properly applied a day later by correctional officers — which caused his heart to stop forever.

Mr. Hyde’s death could have been avoided if he had been handled differently at every turn. Many Nova Scotians still suspect the Tasering was a contributing factor.

Ironically, they might be surprised to hear that many Quebecers were left wondering last week why Montreal police didn’t Taser a mentally ill man who allegedly charged them with a knife. Tragically, the suspect was shot dead instead, and an innocent bystander was killed in the crossfire.

We do not yet know the answers to these questions. If the officers believed they were in immediate, mortal danger, they would not have reached for a (generally) non-lethal weapon. Most likely, they were not armed with Tasers anyway — the Montreal force only has 42 stun guns on hand, compared to Toronto’s 700.

The use of Tasers, especially on emotionally disturbed people, is an emotional issue. But last week, Nova Scotia contributed something useful to the debate: the voice of reason.

In becoming the first province to clarify the rules of engagement in such circumstances, Justice Minister Ross Landry has found the right balance and created a model for other jurisdictions to follow.

We agree with Nova Scotia’s new guidelines that law enforcement officers should consider whether an agitated person is mentally ill and do everything in their power to de-escalate a confrontation, before deploying a stun gun.

We further agree with the precaution — although it’s not always practical — of calling paramedics to the scene before making the call to Taser a medically precarious or disturbed individual.

Most important, police as well as correctional and sheriff’s officers in Nova Scotia will be better trained to recognize signs of a mental illness.

The Hyde inquiry made the salient point that the jail guards didn’t know how to de-escalate confrontations. Better training is certainly the key to enforcing this province’s policy of minimizing harm to the mentally ill.

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