Ontario’s front-line officers permitted to carry Tasers, but device still has its detractors

Matthew Coutts
August 27, 2013
Taser : tous les policiers ontariens pourraient en avoir un
EN DIRECT - Un mois après que la police de Toronto eut abattu Sammy Yatim, la ministre ontarienne de la Sécuritaire communautaire, Madeleine Meilleur, fait présentement une « annonce importante » sur les options offertes aux policiers en matière d'usage de la force

Front-line police officers in Ontario will now be allowed to carry Tasers, and one has to wonder what took so long.

The announcement comes one month after the shooting death of Sammy Yatim and appears to have been long in the making and comes well after most other Canadian forces embraced the conducted energy devices.

Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur announced that rules limiting the devices to members of tactical units and hostage rescue teams would be relaxed, leaving it up to local agencies to decide for themselves how to deploy the devices, considered to be a less-lethal alternative to the handguns carried by everyone in a police uniform.

“Our goal is to ensure the safety of the public while providing police with the tools they need,” she said at a press conference.

The announcement comes one month after the death of 18-year-old Yatim, who died after being shot multiple times during a standoff with police on board an otherwise empty streetcar.

The officer alleged to have shot Yatim, now facing second-degree murder, was not permitted to carry a Taser. In perhaps the cruelest of ironies, an officer with the device arrived moments after the incident and used it on the fallen Yatim.

[ Related: Ontario to change police Taser rules after Sammy Yatim shooting ]

The Taser is already embraced by many other Canadian law agencies and provided to front-line officers. In Ontario, only members of tactical units and hostage rescue teams are currently allowed to carry the device.

The Taser expansion doesn't seem to be linked directly to the Yatim case. QMI Agency reported in July that Ontario front-line officers could be carrying Tasers by the end of the year.

The Taser still has significant detractors, who believe giving it to officers lead to its overuse, despite questions of safety. We all remember the case of Robert Dziekański, who died after being Tasered in the airport in 2007. And an Ontario fatality in 2010 was similarly linked to the use of Tasers.

These incidents lend credence to the Canadian Mental Health Association's opposition to conducted energy weapons (CEWs), claiming the devices are used more frequently than they should be.

[ More Brew: Officer charged with murder only tip of the iceberg ]

The CMHA also says Tasers are tested on healthy adults and could pose a threat to vulnerable citizens, such as those suffering from mental illness or those in "drug-induced toxic states."

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association echoed those concerns on Tuesday, stating the government should be focused on improving training rather than expanding weapons deployment.

"In our view, resolution through de-escalation should be the goal," CCLA general counsel Sukanya Pillay said in a statement.

"Increasing deployment of CEWs opens the door to increased use and misuse of CEWs – these should not become default weapons – use of CEWs can only be permissible in very strict circumstances as set out by the Braidwood Commission. We must always be mindful that Tasers are harmful weapons and the risk of excessive and unjustified force resulting in unnecessary serious injury is real.”

When it is all said and done, however, it seems ridiculous to have a less lethal option such as CEWs locked away at a police station while every officer is equipped with firearms.

Obviously, officers need to be trained and held accountable when the device is used. They shouldn’t be abused. But considering the alternative, they shouldn’t be ignored, either.

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