Putting tasers in the hands of more Toronto police officers "has the potential to save lives," Police Chief Bill Blair said, calling the weapons a "less lethal" option for officers whose alternative might be to reach for a gun.
The Toronto police chief spoke with The Globe and Mail Monday, ahead of a public consultation at City Hall on whether Toronto's taser program should be expanded to include front-line officers.
"There are some life or death situations where deadly force may be necessary," Chief Blair said. "But I think there are also circumstances where a less lethal option would have given an officer another choice," he said. "And that other choice can make the difference between life or death."
In a situation where police arrive and a person is armed with a knife and stabbing him or herself, he said, an officer's options are currently limited. "If you don't stop that person, they'll kill themselves. But to go in and wrestle that knife away can also be very dangerous.
"If there's a conducted energy weapon [taser], we're able to immobilize that individual, disarm them, and render first aid and get them to the hospital," Chief Blair said. "That's a pretty safe way of dealing with that situation." He added that, in many instances, an officer simply displaying the taser is enough to calm a potentially dangerous person.
When a gun is the only option, there is a greater chance a tragedy will occur, as in the case of Sammy Yatim – the 18-year-old who was shot and killed by police after pulling out a knife on a streetcar in July. A source told The Globe and Mail last month that the officer who shot Mr. Yatim had requested a taser before shots were fired. However, because he is a constable, he was unauthorized to carry a taser at the time.
Until recently in Ontario, only supervisors and tactical teams were allowed to use tasers (there are about 500 devices in Toronto in total). Last month, Ontario's Community Safety Minister announced that the weapons can now be used by all front-line police officers. The Toronto Police Services board has not yet made a decision on whether to expand the force's taser program, and is hearing from the public Tuesday on whether they support the idea.
Chief Blair said that because the current program is restricted to supervisors and tactical teams, by the time someone with a taser arrives on a scene, it's often too late. "I have far fewer supervisors on the road than I have first responders – usually a ratio of about one to eight – so the supervisor may arrive on the scene and he's the only one authorized to carry it, but he'll often arrive after the fact, and often times well after the fact."
He would not say how many additional tasers he would like to see the force purchase, or how much it would cost. But in a report at a Toronto Police Services Board meeting earlier this month, Chief Blair pointed out that the service's "current capital program is below the City's debt targets," meaning there could be an opportunity to budget for an expanded program in 2014. "There would be enough money to do it," he said Monday.
He said he does not hope to put the weapons in the hands of every front-line officer – just a select number, and only with intense training and oversight. "We recognize that there's risk associated with it, and it hurts," he said. "So its use should be last-resort, fully justified, necessary, and justifiable in law."
The use of tasers has been under scrutiny. Earlier this month, the Special Investigations Unit announced that it is investigating an incident in which an 80-year-old woman was hurt after being struck by a taser by police in Mississauga.