It has been three years since the Ontario government announced that all front-line police officers in the province would be permitted to carry Conducted Energy Weapons (also known by their popular brand name "Tasers"). Prior to this announcement, Tasers were only available to officers in specialized and supervisory positions.
Almost all 49 municipal police services in Ontario have adopted and expanded Taser use to front-line officers, including the Ontario Provincial Police. However, the Toronto Police Service -- the largest municipal police force in Canada -- still has not taken this step.
Now is the time for the Toronto Police Services Board to approve Taser expansion for all front-line officers in the city.
The addition of Tasers simply provides police with another option when dealing with a critical situation that may require forceful action. People will argue that police do not need more weapons, but rather more effective de-escalation training and techniques. Those people are right. The main focus should always be on communication and de-escalation. However, these techniques do not always work, and by having access to a Taser can significantly help to prevent or avoid a fatal encounter involving a police shooting.
Tasers are considered to be "less-lethal" weapons. They have been associated with several deaths over the past decade. The causes of death are most often underlying medical conditions brought on by the electrical shock from the Taser.
According to a report from Amnesty International in 2013 on police use of force in the U.S., approximately 540 deaths have been connected to the use of Tasers since 2001. The Guardian -- who tracks people killed by U.S. police -- reported that of the 1,146 people killed by American police in 2015, 49 were the result of Taser use. Because there is no national database on police-civilian fatalities, these are unofficial statistics.
Unfortunately, expanding Taser use will not completely prevent police use of deadly force.
In Canada, supervisory officers and those in tactical roles have been carrying Tasers since 2000. It is estimated that the use of Tasers has been associated with approximately 30 deaths between 2000 and 2015. Since the Ontario government expanded Taser use to all police officers in 2013, there have been no reported deaths associated with deployment of the weapon by front-line officers. Thus, deaths related to Taser use are extremely rare in Canada.
There are several concerns about the use of Tasers by police. The fear is that police will use the weapon indiscriminately because of its "less-lethal" classification. Although this is a legitimate concern, evidence from other municipal services in Ontario show otherwise. In several agencies, Taser use has decreased or remained the same since front-line officers began carrying the weapon as compared with years prior.
In other services, Taser use has increased. This is common for the fact that more access will translate into more usage. However, most Taser incidents are reported as "demonstrated force presence" only. This means that the officer did not deploy his/her Taser, but merely presented it in a way to deter an individual. Therefore, actual deployment of Tasers (either in probe or stun mode) by officers is uncommon. This illustrates proper decision-making, effective training, and strong guidelines around the use of this weapon for and by Ontario police officers.
Expanding the use of Tasers to front-line officers in Toronto is a logical decision, especially since the agency has had the opportunity to do so for three years. Unfortunately, expanding Taser use will not completely prevent police use of deadly force. And the reality is that there will most likely be a case where a Taser is connected to a fatality. However, providing Taser access to front-line officers in Toronto will give police a necessary option that will contribute to enhancing the safety of both the public and the police.
The Toronto Police Service must develop a strong policy around Taser use that goes far beyond the requirements outlined in the Ontario guidelines. The policy must also ensure meaningful accountability and strict disciplinary measures for when officers use Tasers carelessly and without sufficient justification.
Tasers are a very expensive investment (new models cost approximately $2,000 each and have a shelf-life of 3-5 years). This is a primary reason why the Toronto Police Services Board has not approved widespread expansion. It is a significant budgetary concern especially to those urging police cutbacks in light of rising costs. However, if they can prevent the death of at least one person, are they not worth the cost for expansion?
Erick's master's thesis examined the Ontario government's decision to expand Taser use to all officers. It can be found at: http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/cntrng-crm/plcng/cnmcs-plcng/rsrch-prtl/dtls-en.aspx?d=PS&i=89723442
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