03/17/2016 22:11 EDT | Updated 03/18/2017 01:12 EDT

Taser use on 'emotionally disturbed' people a 'serious problem,' Tory says

Toronto Mayor John Tory is calling on the provincial government to provide more mental health support after a new report showed that nearly half of the incidents in which police used a Taser in 2015 involved an "emotionally disturbed" person.

According to the report, 81 of the 265 incidents in which a conducted-energy weapon — more commonly known by one of its brand names, Taser — was deployed involved an emotionally disturbed person, or what the police call an EDP. That figure rises to 121, or 45.7 per cent, when including subjects who are emotionally disturbed and at the same time are under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

"The following is clear: We have a serious problem with respect to the number of encounters police have generally with emotionally disturbed people," Tory said Thursday following a Toronto Police Services Board meeting.

"The fact that many of those people would have been cared for better by the mental health system and in some cases end up being Tasered — this is not the best treatment we can think of by a long shot."

The report defines an EDP as someone "perceived to be suffering from a mental disorder or emotional distress and includes a person in crisis." It further defines someone in crisis as suffering a temporary breakdown of coping skills but who remains in touch with reality.

'A very bad position'

The mayor noted that the "one thing that leaps off the page" of the report is the number of times that Tasers are used.

But Tory also said he didn't want to be critical of police, who he described as often having to sit for hours at the hospital waiting until people in crisis undergo mental health assessments. That, he suggested, can exacerbate the condition of someone who is suffering and has also put financial strain on the police budget.

"I think they're being put in a very bad position," the mayor said.

The report does not capture the results of mental health assessments and cautions against concluding that those apprehended were necessarily suffering from a mental disorder.

It also states that a Taser was used only in response to a person's behaviour and not because of his or her condition.

'Bring those down to zero'

An overwhelming majority of those Tasered were male, making up 87 per cent of the total number of targets. Of those, nearly 60 per cent were under 35 years of age.

Direct use of a Taser is authorized only when a person is defined as "assaultive," meaning that he or she displays threatening behaviour or where a person shows an intent to seriously harm themselves or carry out suicide. Those policies are set by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and police.

No deaths directly associated with Taser use by Toronto police were reported in 2015.

"I think we always have to be striving for an objective not to have to use any of these weapons, whether it's the Tasers or any kind of firearm… to bring those down to zero," Tory said.

The mayor did not elaborate on what support he would like to see from the Ontario government.