Ontario’s wish to put tasers in the hands of front-line police officers is spectacularly ill-timed. One month ago, a knife-wielding 18-year-old named Sammy Yatim, alone on a Toronto streetcar, was shot eight times by police, and then tasered. At last a discussion had begun about how police should respond to confrontation, especially with mentally ill people. Ontario would now steer that badly needed dialogue into a blind alley by offering police forces the right to arm their front-line officers, rather than just supervisors, with tasers.
Mr. Yatim would not have been saved by a taser in the hands of the constables who confronted him. Police training deems a man with a knife a lethal threat, and across Canada the taser is not deemed a weapon meant for lethal situations. It is an “intermediate” weapon like a baton, or pepper spray. It would not have been used.
In fact, if the police had wanted to use a taser, they could simply have waited for their supervisor, who was not very far behind them. That the supervisor tasered Mr. Yatim after nine bullets had been fired at him (eight struck him) and he was on his back shows how the weapon can be spectacularly misused.
The Yatim shooting echoes the fatal tasering of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport in 2007. (At least 25 people in Canada and 300 people in the United States have died after being tasered.) In both cases, police had the option to use delaying tactics to avert the use of force. Police could have closed the front door of the streetcar from outside the vehicle, and covered the back door, while trying to talk him down. In the Dziekanski tasering, police had countless options available – from offering the unarmed man a glass of water to finding a Polish speaker who could have tried to talk to him. (Mr. Dziekanski had been lost in the airport for 10 hours. He was immigrating to Canada.)
The killing of Sammy Yatim has created an opportunity to change the way police deal with dangerous confrontations. A Toronto constable is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting, a rare event. Ontario’s Ombudsman André Marin is probing use of force regulations, and retired judge Dennis O’Connor is conducting a review of the shooting, and looking at how to avoid similar ones. This is not the time to add more weaponry, but to teach police how to use the biggest weapons our society has – wisdom, good judgment and experience.