More Tasers, not fewer
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.