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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) should explain use of force, Tasers

A family member’s description of the circumstances that led to a mentally ill man being Tasered last week and the OPP’s reluctance to explain what happened raise questions about how well the situation was handled.

Jake Lee Smith, a 44-year-old City of Kawartha Lakes resident, called 911 after suffering a breakdown and taking an overdose of pills. City of Kawartha Lakes officers went to Smith’s home and when he refused to come out an emergency response team was called in.

According to Smith’s brother, John Garton, Smith panicked when he saw officers in riot gear with semi-automatic rifles and barricaded himself in the house, along with his elderly mother. Some media reports indicated Smith might have had a gun. Garton says the only firearms in the house were a pellet gun and a flare gun used as safety equipment in a boat.

That situation could easily have let to trouble. However, Garton’s version of what happened after he arrived suggests the incident could also have ended quietly. Garton said the officers refused to let him to speak to his brother. Only after a 3-1/2 hour standoff was he allowed to phone in to the home, and convinced Smith to come out and give himself up.

Garton says his brother walked out of the house with his dog and was almost immediately shot twice with a Taser, once in the leg and once in the neck. He described it as a “huge overreaction.”

The OPP refuses to release any details of what the officers reported following the incident. Last week a spokeswoman would say only that the officers were well trained and were protecting the safety of “community members.” On Tuesday she said police will not comment because Smith has been charged with weapons offences and breach of probation.

Police need to be more upfront when they use force during an arrest, particularly in light of the number of deaths following Taser incidents and concerns about the handling of mental health patients. It not clear that Smith was a danger to anyone or that he had threatened the officers in any way.

If not, a full team of specially trained officers should have been able to arrest him peacefully, and should at least have considered letting his brother try to calm him down.

If police saw evidence of a threat serious enough to require Taser use the OPP should say so. The facts will come out if charges against Smith go to court, but the public interest would be better served by not waiting for when, or if, that happens.

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