Tasers are potentially dangerous. Both the manufacturer and scientists have warned about how firing at a subject’s chest could lead to injury or death. Tasers and other high-voltage stun devices can cause cardiac arrhythmia in healthy and susceptible subjects, leading to heart attack or death in minutes by ventricular fibrillation, which leads to cardiac arrest and—if not treated immediately—to sudden death.
Critics question Toronto police push for more Tasers “We don’t need Tasers. We need de-escalation,” Toronto lawyer argues during public meeting on greater deployment of devices among city’s officers.
RCMP Admit Tasers Cause Death
Dozens of citizens turnout for a public consultation on the expanded deployment of Tasers among Toronto police officers. Many worry about the unkown medical impacts of the device on those with mental-health challenges. (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star) | Order this photo
By Wendy GillisNews reporter
Calling it a tool with “the potential to save lives,” Toronto police are renewing their push for greater deployment of conducted energy weapons, saying more front-line officers should have access to the weapons during tense and possibly deadly interactions.
But at a public meeting Wednesday on the possible expansion of Tasers to more front-line officers, critics pushed back against the device, better known as a Taser, raising concerns about increasing weaponization of police and unknown medical impacts on those with mental-health challenges.
“We don’t need Tasers. We need de-escalation,” said Peter Rosenthal, a Toronto lawyer who has represented families of people killed by police.
Currently, only front-line supervisors and some officers in specialized units carry the weapon. The Toronto police is asking its civilian board to expand deployment to on-duty Primary Response Unit constables and to on-duty constables from designated specialized units.
No details about the number of Tasers or total cost have been released. Toronto police deputy chief Barbara McLean said at Wednesday’s meeting that a formal request will be sent to the civilian board.Outgoing deputy chief ‘unreservedly’ endorses Tasers for front-line cops
An eyewitness's video recording of a man dying after being stunned with a Taser by police on Oct. 14 at Vancouver International Airport has been released to the public.
Board chair Andy Pringle said no decision would be made immediately and that expanding the deployment of the weapon is an “active discussion.”
Dr. Peter Collins, a forensic psychiatrist who has been called in by Toronto’s Emergency Task Force to help during crisis calls, says despite the emphasis placed by Toronto police on communication and verbal de-escalation, “unfortunately not everyone will respond to that type of approach.”
“Some individuals are not going to respond and you have to have other options,” Collins said.
Tasers, the only brand of CEW approved for use in Ontario, incapacitate a person through the deployment of two darts connected by wires, which deliver an electric current. The weapon causes involuntary muscle spasms and temporary loss of motor control.
The weapon has become popular within police services in Ontario as a less lethal option for officers in comparison to a firearm. Since the province of Ontario stopped restricting Taser use to supervisors and select officers in 2013, virtually every police service in the province has expanded use of the weapon except Toronto.
Ron Bain, executive director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP), said his organization has long supported Taser deployment to front line officers. The fact that Toronto police officers have restricted access to the weapons means there is now a risk to public and officer safety. The Toronto police board “has the power and authority” to fix the situation, Bain said.
But some members of the public, legal experts and rights organizations are speaking out against greater Taser deployment. High on their list of concerns are the unknown health risks, particularly to people with mental illness.
“CEWs are not harmless weapons. CEWs are weapons that are intensely painful and can potentially lead to serious, even lethal, injuries,” wrote Rob De Luca, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s public safety program, in a letter to the police board in advance of Wednesday’s meeting.
In a written submission to the Toronto police board, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) says the use of CEWs “raises serious human rights concerns because people with mental health disabilities tend to have more frequent contact with police, and may be more likely to be Tasered because of behaviours and responses to police instructions that appear ‘unusual’ or ‘unpredictable.’”
“They may also be more likely to die after being Tasered,” says the OHRC submission.
Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), continues to probe the death of Rui Nabico, 31, who was killed after he was Tasered by a Toronto police officer. Earlier this year, the SIU cleared Toronto police in the death of Rodrigo Almonacid Gonzalez, who was Tasered eight times but whose death the coroner concluded was due to acute cocaine toxicity.
Following the high-profile death of Sammy Yatim — who was shot eight times by Const. James Forcillo, then Tasered by another officer — Toronto police tapped retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci to conduct a review of police use of force on those in mental-health crisis. Among Iacobucci’s recommendations was that Toronto launch a pilot project allowing front line officers greater access to Tasers.
But the recommendation came with a caveat. Iacobucci expressed concern about the unknown health risks posed by the weapon, particularly to people with mental illness, wondering if the population might be particularly vulnerable to the potentially serious effects of Tasers due to a higher likelihood of pre-existing medical conditions, prescription medications, substance abuse issues and high levels of agitation.
“The absence of definitive research into the risks of CEWs for populations who are likely to encounter the police in non-criminal contexts is a problem,” Iacobucci wrote in his 2014 report.
The retired judge recommended Toronto police “advocate for an interprovincial study of the medical effects of CEW use on various groups of people (including vulnerable groups such as people in crisis).”
However, the recommendation was among the few Toronto police did not implement.
“While the Service recognizes the value of continual research, it remains satisfied that the current medical research has found no persuasive evidence of risk to vulnerable persons,” Toronto police said in response.
However, critics have questioned the quality of research on CEWs, including that some studies were conducted or funded by the weapon manufacturers.
Wendy Gillis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org