Taser use questioned after police fired weapon and killed man
Rui Nabico’s death a reminder of unknown health risk associated with stun gun, critics argue
Rui Nabico died just after noon on Friday, near his family home on a typically quiet residential street in the city’s northwest corner. The beloved son, brother and uncle became Toronto’s fourth police-involved fatality this year.
Few details of Nabico’s death have been released by the Special Investigations Unit, the provincial police watchdog now probing the 31-year-old man’s death.
Citing a policy requiring the permission of the next of kin, the agency is not releasing his name, but the Star has confirmed Nabico’s identity with his family.
The fatal interaction occurred after police were summoned to Sagres Cres., near St. Clair Ave. and Old Weston Rd., by witness reports of a man brandishing two knives and screaming.
His case already stands out from other police-involved deaths in Toronto: Though the exact cause of death is still unknown, Nabico went into medical distress after police fired a conducted energy weapon (CEW), more commonly known as a Taser. He was pronounced dead in hospital.
Unlike shootings, fatalities where a Taser was the sole weapon deployed by police are rare. But Nabico’s death comes just as Toronto police are pushing to expand the weapon’s deployment throughout the force by nearly 50 per cent.
Critics say Nabico’s death is a tragic reminder that the health risks of Tasers are far from understood.
“The death Friday contradicts assurances that Tasers don’t kill,” Pat Capponi, co-chair of the Toronto police services board mental health sub-committee, said Monday.
She has asked for an emergency meeting between Toronto police chief Mark Saunders and members of the sub-committee to discuss the proposed expansion.
“Police need less weapons not more, and the message has to come from the top,” she said.
Currently, Toronto police have 545 Tasers, available only to a select few uniform front line supervisors and selected members of specialized units. The force allocated $750,000 in its proposed 2017 budget for an additional 250 Tasers to be given to some front line officers.
Last month, the Toronto Police Services Board passed a motion to conduct community consultations on the broader deployment of Tasers.
“This is in response to the continued need for a less lethal force option to help safely resolve high risk encounters with community members,” reads a Toronto police service document presented at a budget meeting last month.
Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash declined to comment further on Taser expansion plans Monday, citing the ongoing SIU investigation into Friday’s fatality.
In a statement on behalf of Toronto mayor John Tory, Keerthana Kamalavasan said Tory “believes de-escalation should always be at the forefront of policing.”
“We need to equip our front line officers with the training and tools to enable them to decrease fatal encounters between police officers and people in emotional crisis,” she wrote in an email.
Kamalavasan added that Tory will await the results of public consultations on the expanded use of the Taser before going forward.
CEWs are designed to incapacitate a person so an officer can gain control of a subject. The weapon works by causing involuntary muscle spasms and temporary loss of motor control.
Tasers have surged in popularity as a less-lethal option for officers in comparison to a firearm, and juries at several Ontario coroner’s inquests into fatal police shootings have recommended greater deployment of the weapon.
In his review of Toronto police use of force on people experiencing a mental-health crisis, retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci recommended Toronto police launch a pilot project allowing front line officers greater access to Tasers — with some caveats.
Among Iacobucci’s concerns was the unknown health risks posed by the weapon, particularly to people with mental illness. He expressed concerns the population may 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.”
It was among the few recommendations Toronto police chose not to 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 per- sons,” states a Toronto police status report on Iacobucci report implementation, which says 79 of 84 recommendations were implemented in full or in part.
The report cites the Ontario government’s 2013 decision to ditch its regulation limiting Taser access to supervisors and specialty units, instead allowing individual police services to decide which officers could carry the weapon.
The province’s decision was made after a review of “current medical literature, a jurisdictional scan and consultation with stakeholders, including police and civil liberties ad- vocates,” reads Toronto police’s Iacobucci implementation document.
Critics, however, have questioned the quality of research on CEWs. Among concerns raised by former Ontario Court of Appeal judge Stephen Goudge in his 2013 report on the medical effects of CEWs was that many of the studies were being conducted or funded by the manufacturers of the weapons.
Since the province stopped restricting Taser use to supervisors and select officers, every police service in Ontario has expanded use of the weapon — except Toronto and Orangeville, according to Erick Laming, a doctoral student in criminology at the University of Toronto who has studied Taser use in the province.
Despite that, serious injuries or deaths haven’t seen a significant jump, in part because many instances of use of the weapon are what’s called “demonstrated force presence.” It refers to the action where an officer pulled out the weapon to gain compliance, but didn’t fire it.
He supports the Toronto police effort to allow more front line officers access to the weapons. But he said there should be stronger guidelines. Wendy Gillis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rui Nabico, 31, died Friday after police fired a Taser at him.