Ontario's move to expand the use of tasers one month after a disturbing police shooting is raising fears the controversial weapons will be used instead of non-violent de-escalation techniques, and stoking concern the province's rules governing their use are too broad.
The stun guns had previously been restricted in Canada's largest province to tactical teams and supervisors. On Tuesday, the government announced that they can now be used by all front-line officers.
Police welcomed the news, with the Ontario Provincial Police and local forces in Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton all cheering the development.
But critics pointed to a coroner's inquest in July that found a taser partly to blame in the death of a 27-year-old man. Aron Firman, a paranoid schizophrenic, was staying at a group home in Collingwood when Ontario Provincial Police tasered him after an assault complaint. The inquest recommended the government review statistics on the use of tasers across the province to improve training, and research factors that contribute to sudden in-custody deaths, including when a taser is deployed.
"All front-line officers should be trained in de-escalation, but the more appropriate fix would be to have crisis-intervention teams available to deal with these situations," Mr. Firman's father, Marcus, said Tuesday. He contended that, given its timing, the taser announcement is merely a "knee-jerk reaction" to the shooting death of Sammy Yatim on a Toronto streetcar one month ago.
The government denies Mr. Yatim's death prompted the move. Craig MacBride, a spokesman for Ontario's Minister of Community Safety, said the decision to equip front-line officers with tasers follows years of reviewing medical literature and consulting with police. He said it is too early to implement the recommendations of the Firman inquest.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association argued that Ontario's guidelines are too lax because they allow the use of the weapon in a broad range of circumstances.
"Our concern is when tasers are used in situations where de-escalation tactics may have been effective, where there may have been other options," said Abby Deshman, director of CCLA's public-safety program.
Retired judge Thomas Braidwood, who led an inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski, the Polish immigrant who died after he was tasered at Vancouver's airport, recommended stricter rules. He called for tasers to be used only when there is a risk of imminent bodily harm or death. "There's room for a taser ... but [police] have to be trained on when and how to use it," he said.
Alok Mukherjee, chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, took a similar view.
"I always worry about the possibility that if we give more hardware, whether police officers will still make every possible effort to use their skills and communication and de-escalation before they use the hardware," he said.
Amnesty International says 550 people have died after being shocked with tasers in the United States since 2001. But manufacturer Taser International says medical research has not established a direct link between tasers and deaths.
And in the end, officers argued, zapping a suspect is still preferable to shooting them.
"This is an intermediate use-of-force option, it is a less lethal option," said Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire. "It is not the panacea for the removal of deadly force within policing – there will be occasions when deadly force is utilized in policing – but this gives us yet another tool to help save lives in the province."