Why Toronto police are looking at alternatives to stun guns

The Toronto Police Service is commissioning an independent review that will examine alternatives to the use of conducted energy weapons (CEWs), commonly known as Tasers or stun guns.

One of the senior members who advocated for CEWS before their adoption by the force in 2002, retired deputy chief Mike Federico, says the time has come to take another look.

“Is this one single weapon still the best weapon?” he said in an interview with CBC Toronto. “That’s a very worthy question to ask.”

The Request for Proposal (RFP) says the force is asking an external body to look at several aspects of the issue over a period of two months, including:

  • Possible alternatives to CEWs and tactical approaches.
  • Best practices on the safety of CEWs in different modes.
  • Other jurisdictions that have implemented policies on permitted methods of using CEWs.

The third-party review comes on the heels of Toronto police expanding the deployment of its CEW pilot program in May 2018, in which more than 600 police constables were trained to use them.

‘One of the most scrutinized weapons’

Toronto police introduced stun guns as a less-lethal option that would immobilize a threat. At the time, only supervisors were trained.

Frederico was one of the architects of  the force’s use-of-force training. He said officers got 16 hours of training on stun guns, including on knowing when it was necessary to use one, and how to minimize harm.

He said the research convinced him they were the best way to minimize harm to civilians when they were implemented almost 20 years ago.

“It is one of the most scrutinized weapons in the police arsenal,” he said.

Toronto Police declined to comment on the RFP, but stated it was initiated because of a Toronto Police Services Board directive.

High profile cases

Police chiefs had advocated for Tasers for years, especially in cases where officers encounter people in emotional or mental distress. They became more ubiquitous since several high profile incidents, including the shootings deaths of Sammy Yatim in 2013 and Andrew Loku in 2015.

In the last decade or so, police services in many cities across North America have increased their use of stun guns. Ottawa’s police force is attempting to outfit every officer with a Taser. Montreal’s force is aiming for one in each patrol car. Police in American cities like Chicago already are all equipped with the weapon.

In the wake of this surge, they’ve also come under scrutiny.

Advocates called for more emphasis on de-escalation following the death of Rui Nabico, who went into medical distress and later died in hospital after he was Tasered by Toronto police in 2016.

More recently, a Toronto officer who used a Taser on a handcuffed man was temporarily demoted last week.

An internal report from the Toronto Police Service showed Tasers were used in 500 incidents in 2018, up from 309 incidents the previous year. However, more than half of the reports last year involved police merely showing the weapon.

By the numbers

Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, which investigates all reports involving police in the province where there has been death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault, reported the following number of investigations in which a CEW was used:

2019 so far: 7 cases.
2018: 9 cases.
2017: 9 cases.
2016: 12 cases.
2015: 8 cases.

Root causes

To Nigel Barriffe, president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, the money going toward the independent review could be better spent on housing, ensuring people have a livable wage and mental health supports, among other things.

“These are the root causes where folks end up being put into contact with police officers,” he said.

“We get told over and over we don’t have a lot of resources, but then money is either going directly to police or going to some research.”

For former deputy chief Federico, though, it’s a worthwhile investment.

“The research benefits are that impacts on social health and well-being could possibly be improved by better information,” he said.

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