Police should invest in de-escalation training instead of expanding weapons available for use against citizens, community advocates argued Tuesday, just prior to a public consultation on expanding taser use.
"The fact is that a taser is not an adequate weapon if someone is really coming at you with a knife. It's not reliable enough," said Peter Rosenthal, a Toronto lawyer who has represented victims of police shootings and their families. "There's no really good use for it in my view."
Sakura Saunders, with the grassroots group Disarm Toronto Police, said Toronto should take weapons away from front-line officers, not expand their arsenal.
"What we're worried about is that tasers will be used when police wouldn't have used guns in the first place," she said. "We're not suggesting that all police don't have arms, but that specially trained officers have guns that can be called in."
Their sentiments were echoed by other members of the public during the Toronto Police Services Board consultation; speakers also raised options such as expanding the service's Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, specially trained for mental-health cases, or purchasing tasers with low voltages.
Recent changes to the Ministry of Community Safety's guidelines on tasers mean that all front-line officers, not just supervisors and tactical teams, may carry the devices.
Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash said the service has a detailed policy for emotionally disturbed persons, who are involved in about 20,000 police incidents a year.
"The vast majority of those cases are resolved successfully," Mr. Pugash said.
Police Chief Bill Blair has expressed support for expanding the use of tasers and pointed to an opportunity in the budget for an expanded program in 2014. He has argued conducted energy weapons can potentially save lives in situations where force is necessary but a gun could lead to tragedy.
The debate on tasers was reignited after 18-year-old Sammy Yatim was fatally shot several times and then tasered in July. Last month, an 80-year-old Mississauga woman fell and fractured a hip after being tasered.
Ms. Saunders said, "We think it's really inappropriate to give the police more weapons after Sammy Yatim's death because what we should be doing right now is reflecting on poor decision making of the police and police abuse."