More Tasers, not fewer

Toronto Star - - CANADA -

The story of Rui Nabico’s death is as con­fused as it is tragic. Last Fri­day, the Toronto man be­came the city’s fourth fatality this year in­volv­ing po­lice af­ter of­fi­cers were called fol­low­ing re­ports that a man was bran­dish­ing knives and scream­ing.

But in­stead of re­new­ing a de­bate on the use of guns, his death has opened up a dis­cus­sion about the use of Tasers. That’s be­cause Nabico didn’t die af­ter be­ing shot with a gun, but of un­known med­i­cal causes af­ter be­ing hit with a con­ducted en­ergy weapon.

In the wake of his death, Pat Cap­poni, co-chair of the Toronto Po­lice Ser­vices Board men­tal health sub­com­mit­tee, has called for po­lice to have less ac­cess to Tasers — just as Toronto po­lice are push­ing to ex­pand the num­ber of stun guns avail­able to of­fi­cers by nearly 50 per cent.

There’s no ques­tion that Nabico’s death is tragic. And we’ll know more af­ter the Spe­cial In­ves­ti­ga­tions Unit fin­ishes its probe on whether of­fi­cers could have de-es­ca­lated the sit­u­a­tion with­out re­sort­ing to force. But his death should not de­ter po­lice from arm­ing more front-line of­fi­cers with Tasers.

As the po­lice ser­vices board points out, Tasers pro­vide a “less lethal force op­tion to help safely re­solve high risk en­coun­ters.” And ju­ries at sev­eral On­tario coro­ner’s inquests into fa­tal po­lice shoot­ings have rec­om­mended greater de­ploy­ment of the weapon, as did for­mer Supreme Court jus­tice Frank Ia­cobucci in his re­port on the shoot­ing of Sammy Ya­tim in the sum­mer of 2013. In­deed, there’s a strong case that Tasers can save lives. Con­sider the case of Ger­ald Rattu. On Jan. 16, he was shot as he walked to­ward a Durham Re­gional Po­lice of­fi­cer hold­ing a knife. The of­fi­cer, who was cleared of any wrong­do­ing, had been try­ing to stall Rattu un­til an­other of­fi­cer could ar­rive with a Taser. Un­for­tu­nately that of­fi­cer didn’t ar­rive in time.

And then there’s the case of An­drew Loku. The men­tally ill man was wield­ing a ham­mer in the sum­mer of 2015 when po­lice shot him to death. Would the out­come have been dif­fer­ent if the re­spond­ing of­fi­cers had had Tasers?

What Nabico’s death points to is not the need for less Tasers, but the need for a study into the use of stun guns on peo­ple po­lice are likely to en­counter in a non-crim­i­nal con­text, as Ia­cobucci also rec­om­mended.

Though he was ad­vo­cat­ing for more Tasers, Ia­cobucci was con­cerned peo­ple with men­tal ill­nesses may be par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to the po­ten­tially se­ri­ous ef­fects of stun guns due to a higher like­li­hood of pre-ex­ist­ing med­i­cal con­di­tions, pre­scrip­tions medications, sub­stance abuse is­sues and higher agi­ta­tion lev­els.

Toronto po­lice did not fol­low up on Ia­cobucci’s rec­om­men­da­tion for fur­ther study cit­ing cur­rent med­i­cal re­search that “has found no per­sua­sive ev­i­dence of risk to vul­ner­a­ble per­sons.”

But they should. The more in­for­ma­tion all of­fi­cers have about the weapons they use, and how they em­ploy them, the bet­ter.

In the mean­time, po­lice need more op­tions in their tool kit, not fewer.

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