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 wgillis@thes­tar.ca

Rui Nabico, 31, died Fri­day af­ter po­lice fired a Taser at him.

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