The Ontario government should be applauded for its decision to equip front line officers with tasers. Until now, only tactical units and front line supervisors were permitted to carry and use the conducted energy devices.
According to many experts, there is no scientific evidence that exists at the moment that shows a causal link between the deployment of a taser and a death. Without question, police need tools to control extremely violent individuals without endangering life. Police see tasers as the best option to firearms. Many authorities, both within the police community and outside, insist their use should be restricted to violent situations.
That said, it is now crucial that minimum standards for the efficacy and use of tasers be developed. Relying on manufacturers' specifications is completely unacceptable. A framework to establish priorities and bring the best Canadian and international practices together to focus on standards for protecting first responders and the public is critical. The federal government – as recommended in a 2008 report by the RCMP commissioner – should take the initiative and set standards for the use of tasers under its power in the Criminal Code to regulate firearms.
One in 20 of these devices fail, a fact acknowledged by one manufacturer. This is statistically very significant when it comes to product quality, integrity and product liability. This failure rate defies all logic, is inexcusable and smacks of shoddy manufacturing and quality control. Manufacturers and police services should take note that no other electrical product can be legally sold in Canada unless it is tested and certified by a recognized national standards organization such as the Canadian Standards Association. For the police, this is very much a workplace safety issue. There is not one other safety-related product used by police officers across Canada that is not certified and manufactured to a national standard. This includes protective equipment (helmets, vests) and vehicles). So why should tasers be exempt?
An important Canadian study in 2005 supported the use of tasers and found that their advantages far outweigh their dangers. It said the risks are low but manageable, but cautioned that police and the public must be aware of their dangers. Certainly, establishing minimum standards for their efficacy would build upon this study and would be another step in the right direction by further ensuring police accountability and allaying public fears and concerns. Standards would also help to restore public confidence in these controversial weapons.
That study was conducted by the Canadian Police Research Centre, under the auspices of the National Research Council of Canada. I represented the Canada Safety Council and was a member of that study's steering committee. The Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada, the Schizophrenia Society of Canada and the Canada Safety Council participated in the study. Third-party participants were required to ensure that committee membership was balanced and the public interest was well represented. This objective was achieved.
Ontario's police chiefs and their respective police services boards should take the lead in calling for these product standards.
Emile Therien is a public health and safety advocate and past president of the Canada Safety Council