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Stunning Divide

While Tasers have been at the heart of a heated debate for causing more than 20 deaths in Canada, studies have found that this type of conducted energy weapon (CEW) is safe to use and poses little threat to the officers wielding them. What...


Ontario has removed restrictions for officers carrying conducted energy weapons.
Ontario has removed restrictions for officers carrying conducted energy weapons.

While Tasers have been at the heart of a heated debate for causing more than 20 deaths in Canada, studies have found that this type of conducted energy weapon (CEW) is safe to use and poses little threat to the officers wielding them. What safeguards can be put in place to balance the safety of those deploying the weapon and the subjects who are at the receiving end?

In August, Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) removed restrictions from officers carrying CEWs by allowing local police services to decide which officers would be permitted to carry them. In the past, the province restricted the use of these devices to specific positions and police teams such as members of tactical units, hostage-rescue teams, containment teams and frontline supervisors.

The authorization of the expanded deployment of Tasers follows increased scrutiny brought on by the death of Sammy Yatim, who was shot nine times and stunned once by a CEW on a streetcar in Toronto in July. An officer has since been charged in the death of the 18-year-old.

But the ministry’s latest move comes with strings attached. It includes providing officers with guidance relating to when deploying a CEW is appropriate; increasing reporting provisions, including when a CEW is displayed with the intention to achieve behaviour compliance; and enhancing training, including what to do when interacting with people suffering from mental health issues. As well, the ministry expects police services to engage local communities prior to making any decision to expand CEW deployment in their jurisdiction.

The MCSCS says its approach to Tasers is based on evidence showing that use of this device is among the safer use-of-force options. A review of the medical and scientific literature by the MCSCS determined that CEWs result in fewer significant injuries to subjects and officers compared to other options such as pepper spray, batons and physical restraint. “Research also concluded that the overall risk of serious injury associated with use of a CEW is low,” says MCSCS spokesperson Greg Flood.

WHAT IS SAFE

Conducted energy weapons, which are designed to emit electrical currents to incapacitate or ensure compliance through pain, have been around for more than four decades. The first device was developed in the late 1960s by Jack Cover, an American physicist and NASA researcher.

“Conducted energy weapons, for the past decade, have been used widely by law enforcement agencies in British Columbia, across Canada and internationally,” Thomas Braidwood, Queen’s Counsel and commissioner, wrote in the first phase of his report on the use of CEWs in British Columbia, released in 2009. Braidwood headed the two commissions of the inquiry into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who was fatally stunned by a CEW at the Vancouver International Airport in October of 2007.

Many experts believe that CEWs are among the safest devices — if not the safest — for use by police officers. “We have a lot of confidence in these weapons,” says Joe Couto, director of government relations and communications with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police in Toronto.

That confidence stems from research indicating that CEWs pose little threat to operators. Two studies from down south done in the last five years found a 60 to 70 per cent decrease in injury to citizens and police officers in circumstances in which these devices were used.

The only CEWs authorized for use in Canada are those manufactured by TASER International, Inc. A two-year study by the Regina-based Canadian Police Research Centre, now part of the federal government’s Canadian Safety and Security Program, examined more than 560 uses of weapons including Tasers, choke holds and batons by city police. CEWs scored “high” in terms of officer safety.

This investigation — the first of its kind in the country — found that even though Tasers were used in almost half of the incidents studied, only one per cent of suspects or officers had to be hospitalized as a result of its deployment. Most of the officers and suspects involved in the altercations — upwards of 90 per cent — sustained no or minor injuries. On the other hand, the use of batons led to injury more than 60 per cent of the time and more than a quarter of individuals required outpatient treatment.

One of the reasons CEWs, which have been in use in Canada since 1999, rank high as a safe weapon has to do with distance. Tasers, which are typically deployed from at least two metres or more, mean that the officer and the subject are not in physical contact. “You are not tackling someone. There are no cuts, bruises or torn ligaments,” says Steve Tuttle, vice-president of communications with TASER International, Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona.

But at some point, officers will still have to get close to their subjects to arrest or transport them. As with any weapon, CEWs can be used against the officer, although this could prove difficult as seizing a Taser from a law enforcement officer is not quite like seizing a knife, baton or revolver.

“Simply grabbing it and attempting to fire it will not likely work,” Couto says, citing that a CEW will not fire at the press of the trigger. For example, one Taser model has its push-button trigger located under a safety cover that must be slid open before the device can be fired.

And if the officer has already deployed the device, the possibility of it being used by a suspect diminishes further. “You’d have to know how to reload once discharged,” explains Rob Gordon, director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and a member of the expert panel on Medical and Physiological Impacts of Conducted Energy Weapons. This independent, evidence-based assessment of the state of scientific knowledge regarding the medical and physiological impacts of CEWs is scheduled to release its findings this fall.

There is another type of CEW called the push-stun mode, which requires greater physical proximity during deployment. The end of the weapon is pressed against the target’s body and a pulsed electrical current is transferred to the adjacent muscles. Reports, such as the one issued by the Braidwood Commission, have called into question the use of this up-close-and-personal option by police officers.

Despite the confidence that many police organizations have in CEWs, these weapons can still pose a health and safety risk to officers. The types of incidents in which Tasers are used are often high-risk in nature, notes Sergeant Greg Cox, spokesperson for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Ottawa. “The likelihood of injury is higher than average,” he says.

HITTING THE BOOKS

Reducing that likelihood of injury starts with training. In Ontario, Couto says new users currently receive eight hours of training on CEWs, while those returning for the annual refresher course undergo a four-hour program.

These numbers are set to increase, as the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services will require new users to take a 12-hour program — one-third of which is dedicated to “judgement training” as spelled out in the province’s CEW trainer’s manual. The training also includes essentials such as how to use and load the weapon.

Learning how to use a CEW is not difficult; Tuttle says he can train someone to hit a bullseye with a Taser in 15 seconds. Rather, the challenge is determining when to use the weapon, which is recommended as a last-resort measure. “De-escalation is the first and best option available to frontline police officers,” Couto says.

The ideal scenario is one in which officers do not have to reach for their weapons at all; the next best option is not having to use it once drawn. However, the most effective weapon in a police officer’s arsenal is training that helps t
hem understand how to transform a volatile and potentially violent situation into one that is safe.

In many situations, simply showing a Taser and threatening its use is effective. “Our statistics show that the CEW draw-and-display alone was effective in controlling the subject’s behaviour 89 per cent of the time and, therefore, successful in de-escalating the subject’s behaviour. For armed subjects, the CEW was effective in controlling the subject’s behaviour 86 per cent of the time,” Cox says.

The RCMP has revised its use-of-force training and policies to increase the focus on de-escalation and communication. “RCMP members are trained to continually assess risk, keeping in mind the totality of the circumstances — situational factors, tactical considerations, officer perceptions and subject behaviour — to determine the options available to the officer and assist in determining the safest, most effective means to control the situation,” Cox adds.

WHEEL OF FORCE

At the heart of much of the training across Canada is what is known as the use-of-force model. Often envisioned as a continuum, the model is actually a circle, explains Sergeant Pierre Chamberland, media-relations coordinator for the Ontario Provincial Police in Orillia. “It lays out the application of the use of force, everything from the presence of an officer to lethal force. It provides an aid to the officer to guide their reaction.”

The model relies on a revolving assessment of a situation in which officers identify and select the appropriate force options to obtain control of, or ultimately, de-escalate the event. “All police officers in Ontario receive use-of-force training as recruits and on an annual basis thereafter as part of their in-service training,” Flood says. “A key component of the recruit and in-service training focuses on de-escalation techniques, such as establishing rapport, conflict resolution, mediation and threat management.”

ALL FIRED UP

A study entitled Police Use of Force, Tasers and Other Less-Lethal Weapons, published in 2011 by the United States Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., concluded that conducted energy devices (CEDs) are among the safest options for use by officers.

The report, which looked at six police departments and evaluated the results of 962 “real world” CED uses, found that when officers used force, injury rates to citizens ranged from 17 to 64 per cent, while officer injury rates hover between 10 and 20 per cent. Most injuries involved minor bruises, strains and abrasions. The use of pepper sprays and CEDs can significantly reduce injuries to both suspects and officers, the report notes.

For some, CEDs may be associated with the misuse of force by law enforcers, in part due to the fallout of high-profile incidents involving Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski in Vancouver and 18-year-old Sammy Yatim in Toronto. But use-of-force is a relatively rare occurrence, says Greg Flood, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services in Toronto. “Research has confirmed that force is used in only 0.04 to 0.08 per cent of public-police interactions.”

Ontario’s model has gained traction across the country. The approach, developed in 1993, has served as the foundation for the establishment of a national use-of-force framework. Flood says the use-of-force guideline is contained within the policing standards manual. A country-wide model was first proposed in 1999 to promote consistency in training, practice and standards across Canada.

Consistency is critical to officer safety and the use of CEWs, says Cathy Palmer, president of the Canadian Association of Police Boards in Ottawa. “There needs to be setting of national standards and a consistent or coherent way of sharing best practices,” Palmer notes, adding that putting these standards in place requires more than just paperwork.

Risks to officers can increase if a board does not have a clear policy framework, guidelines, accountability and solid training on the use of force for its officers. “This training needs to include clear roles, responsibilities and authorities, and it needs to be regular, extensive and effective,” she adds.

However, Gordon thinks that such instruction does not currently exist to the extent that is required in Canada. “It could take up to two years to train officers in the use and the non-use of Tasers. It’s a long haul to get everybody to the point where they are trained in de-escalation.”

Gordon adds that currently, there is no police force that has officers trained in a manner consistent with the recommendations contained in the Braidwood report, which calls into question not only the training offered to law enforcers in British Columbia, but also the training materials themselves.

“This review has shown an inappropriately high degree of dependence on the manufacturer’s training materials, not only among the 10 agencies that rely exclusively on the manufacturer’s materials, but also among other agencies that profess to have developed ‘vendor-neutral’ materials,” Braidwood states in his report.

“I do not mean to suggest that the manufacturer’s materials should not be used in training,” Braidwood clarifies, noting that the manufacturer who designed and built the weapon knows how it works and how it should be cared for. “However, it is in my view inappropriate for law enforcement agencies to rely exclusively on the manufacturer’s training materials, when they encroach into policy areas or issues of medical risks that may be under dispute.”

INHERENT RISKS

That said, training alone cannot anticipate or address every possible contingency. Sergeant Chamberland points out that there are always risks involved with using stun guns. “You have to have a successful deployment. If it doesn’t work, you need to find Plan B in a hurry.”

The environment in which a CEW is being used should also be considered. Tuttle cautions that Tasers, like any electric device, should not be used near flammable materials, as the electrical spark can ignite flammable substances.

Protests held against expanded Taser use

Activists and local citizens protested against Ontario’s plans to expand the use of conducted energy weapons (CEWs) by police in a public board meeting held at Toronto’s City Hall on September 24.

Speakers at the meeting, organized by the mental health sub-committee of the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB), included Abby Deshman of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, lawyer Peter Rosenthal, Sakura Saunders of grassroots organization Disarm Toronto Police, TPSB head Alok Mukherjee, mental health workers and patients and victims of Tasers.

The event, which attracted more than 70 people and hosted 47 speakers, followed the provincial government’s decision on August 27 to ease restrictions on the use of Tasers by allowing police departments to decide which frontline officers can carry them.

At the meeting, Saunders asked the audience to raise their hands if they believed that the Toronto G20 summit protests, which resulted in violence, vandalism and mass arrests in June of 2010, would have gone better if the police involved had used Tasers. Nobody raised a hand, she reports.

Also involved with the conference was the Toronto Police Accountability Association. “Tasers are generally used as a way of controlling situations,” says John Sewell, former Toronto mayor and coordinator of the association. “It doesn’t have to do, as far as we can see, with safety of any sort. It has to do with control. That’s not the way police should be respon
ding. They should be de-escalating situations.”

Sewell suggests that police should focus more on communication than control. “Talking to people helps an awful lot,” he notes. “That’s a skill that police are not taught. They’re taught to command.”

Sewell and Saunders agree that Tasers should be limited only to specially trained officers with Toronto Police Service, such as the Emergency Task Force. They also cite recent cases of abuse in Ontario, including one in which an 80-year-old woman was injured after a Peel Regional Police officer allegedly used a CEW on her in August.

(Jeff Cottrill, Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News, October 7, 2013)

The operating manual for Taser X26C says the device can ignite explosive materials, liquids or vapours, which include gasoline and gases in sewer lines. This makes the device hazardous to use in methamphetamine laboratories and situations in which butane-type lighters are present. Some pepper sprays contain flammable carriers such as alcohol, including some self-defence sprays labelled “non-flammable”, which may ignite when used with Tasers.

The statistics require interpretation as well. There is a body of evidence that suggests simply threatening to reach for, reaching for or brandishing a CEW is enough to de-escalate a dangerous situation. By contrast, if the individual being threatened has a mental illness, such actions may only serve to escalate a situation.

“In many cases, the law enforcement officer is aggressive. That’s their job to quell the situation,” says Dave Gallson, associate national executive director of the Mood Disorders Society of Canada in Guelph, Ontario. “[But] a person with a mental health issue may see this as a direct threat and they react appropriately.”

And this is where training can play a key role. “Every police force in the country should establish a mental health and addictions advisory committee,” Gallson advises. “They can oversee the proper training of mental health awareness among police officers. They can help guide the local police.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care provides funding for approximately 50 Mobile Crisis Units to assist individuals with serious mental illnesses. The mobile team is made up of a mental health worker and a police officer who respond to crisis calls. Such partnerships are likely to pay off in reducing the use of weapons. “In communities where persons with mental illness are supported with necessary resources and services, the need for police intervention with individuals in crisis to maintain safety may be reduced,” Flood says.

DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

It is in the interest of law enforcers to be aware that it is not only the suspect who can be injured by the use of a CEW. Gallson believes that the controversy surrounding the use of and seeing a CEW being deployed against an individual can also take a psychological toll on police officers.

Gallson suggests that if an officer is considering deploying a Taser, the situation is already “very serious”. He cautions that stressful situations like this can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “If you can de-escalate, there is less risk of stress and mental health problems.”

But Gordon is not concerned about the psychological impact associated with using CEWs, as police officers have been trained prior to using these devices. “Police officers are physically engaging other people all the time. They wouldn’t suffer PTSD.”

However, he notes that there is reservation in British Columbia regarding the use of CEWs since the release of the Braidwood findings. “Police officers are refusing to take them out on patrol because of the fallout,” Gordon says. “There has been an 80 per cent drop in use.”

The RCMP in British Columbia has also tightened its policy regarding the use of stun guns and endorsed the Braidwood report’s recommendation that the weapons should be used only when a suspect is “causing bodily harm or will imminently cause bodily harm.”

By contrast, Ontario’s move to expand the deployment of CEWs after the fatal shooting and stunning of Sammy Yatim seems counter-intuitive to the direction taken by British Columbia following the adverse publicity from the Dziekanski incident. In November, the Toronto Police Services Board voted against equipping more frontline officers with CEWs.

Flood says it is difficult to determine if recent developments in Ontario will influence the actions of other jurisdictions. “We are aware that other provinces, with the exception of Quebec, currently allow frontline officers to carry CEWs. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary also restricts frontline officers from carrying CEWs.”

The latest model of Tasers, such as the company’s new line of “smart weapons” that includes the X26P, have enhanced features to help ensure greater accuracy and increased safety. The new weaponry also comes with a built-in system that provides three different reports, including a logistics report when the weapon is fired and a self-diagnostic to indicate if the weapon will perform.

Nevertheless, concerns surrounding public and occupational safety issues associated with the use of CEWs are not likely to abate anytime soon. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association in Toronto issued a statement in August in response to the provincial government’s decision to expand the use of CEWs, citing misuse of these devices in the past and the impact on individuals with mental health or addiction problems.

“In our view, resolution through de-escalation should be the goal,” Sukanya Pillay, acting executive director and interim general counsel of the association, said in the statement. “These should not become default weapons.”

Follow us on Twitter @OHSCanada

Donalee Moulton is a writer in Halifax.


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1 Comment » for Stunning Divide
  1. Leanne Flynn says:

    Thank you very much for this article. The United Nations asked several months ago for police to stop carrying tasers as sidearms, except in extreme situations for specialty officers only! Glad to see Ottawa delaying on handing out more of them. Police must NOT continue tasering one another during ‘training’ of any kind! An American police officer suffered a broken leg bone during a ‘taser training’ about a year ago & he is suing his precinct- rightly so. The gun style of the taser is interfering with officers’ confidence in the sidearms they used for emergencies before- they are drawing guns and firing guns much faster than before. They will need fire arms retraining after tasers are collected.

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