Skip to main content

It seems that policeman James Forcillo called for a taser before opening fire on Sammy Yatim. Which invites the question: Why wasn't Constable Forcillo carrying a taser himself?

The answer is simple: He wasn't allowed to. Ontario rules say only supervising officers, tactical teams and other specialized units can be equipped with the stun guns. That sets Ontario apart from the Vancouver Police Department, the RCMP, the Sûreté du Québec and municipal forces in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Alberta. According to a 2009 report by Ontario's Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, all of them allow trained front-line officers to carry tasers. Why doesn't Ontario?

The amateur videos of the Yatim incident show police officers shouting at the 18-year-old to drop his knife. When he does not, Constable Forcillo shoots – nine times. About half a minute after the last shots ring out, a tall police officer runs into the picture. Moments later, the sounds of a taser being discharged can be heard.

If this was the supervising officer bringing the taser that Constable Forcillo called for, then he arrived too late. The result was bizarre: police tasering their man after shooting him down.

If Constable Forcillo himself had been armed with a taser instead of having to call for one, would he have drawn it first, neutralizing Mr. Yatim without opening fire? Trying to guess at what might have happened is risky, but he would at least have had the option.

The stun gun has been adopted by police forces around North America as an intermediate weapon and, sometimes, an alternative to lethal force. The Robert Dziekanski tragedy drew attention to the potential dangers of using the weapon. The Polish man died of a heart attack after RCMP officers jolted him several times with a taser in a confrontation at the Vancouver airport. But what about the dangers of not using it?

A British Columbia inquiry recommended new guidelines for its use and better training for officers, but commissioner Thomas Braidwood concluded that "in the great majority of deployments, the conducted-energy weapon is effective" and that "use of this weapon in lethal-force situations may well have saved lives." He added: "I am satisfied that, on balance, our society is better off with these weapons in use than without them."

The Canadian Police Association said in 2009, after the Dziekanski affair, that "a conducted-energy weapon is a valuable use-of-force option available to police officers to reduce the risk of injury or death." The American Medical Association's Council on Science and Public Health said that "if deployed according to an appropriate use-of-force policy, and used in conjunction with a medically driven quality-assurance process, taser use by law-enforcement officers appears to be a safe and effective tool to place unco-operative or combative subjects into custody."

The report in Ontario by Community Safety and Correctional Services said that stun guns are "an effective, less lethal weapon" and "an appropriate tool for law enforcement." But it added that all the media coverage of taser-linked deaths had "heightened apprehension" about their safety.

Most Ontario police forces, including Toronto's, have argued the provincial government should give tasers to all front-line officers. They are right. If patrol officers can carry a firearm, it hardly makes sense to tell them that a taser is too dangerous for them to handle.

Critics of taser use argue that police should try to reason with suspects instead, and it is true that the Yatim shooting underlines the need for better training in how to use talk in place of force. But talk will not always work, especially if the suspect is mentally unstable, on drugs or attempting "suicide by police." Equipping all police with tasers would give them an alternative to gunfire when talk fails. If Constable Forcillo had been carrying one, Mr. Yatim might still be alive.