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Speakers protest expanded police taser use at Toronto City Hall

(Canadian OH&S News)


(Canadian OH&S News)

Activists and other local citizens spoke out against plans to expand police use of conducted energy weapons, or tasers, in a public board meeting at Toronto’s City Hall on Sept. 24.

Speakers at the meeting, which was organized by the mental health subcommittee 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 past taser victims.

“I thought it went excellent,” Saunders said about the event, which attracted more than 70 people and hosted 47 speakers.

For Saunders, her concerns revolve around accountability. “These police don’t get fired. They’re still there,” she said.

The public meeting followed the Ontario government’s Aug. 27 decision (COHSN, Sept. 2) to ease restrictions on taser use — allowing police departments to decide which frontline officers can carry them — and the fatal TPS shooting and tasing of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on July 27.

At one point during the meeting, Saunders asked audience members to raise their hands if they believed that the Toronto G20 summit protests — which resulted in violence, vandalism and mass arrests in June 2010 — would have gone better if the police involved had used tasers. “Nobody had their hand raised,” she said, “even all the police officers. We probably would have had deaths on our hands if the police had tasers at that time,” she charged.

Saunders foresees tragic consequences if Toronto frontline officers are permitted to carry tasers in the future. “What you’d probably find is people being tased for being unresponsive or talking back to police officers. We don’t want to see the Toronto police be attitude enforcers with an extremely deadly weapon.”

Also involved with the conference was the Toronto Police Accountability Association. Former Toronto mayor John Sewell, a coordinator with the association, predicts “mayhem” if all Toronto officers are permitted to carry tasers.

“Tasers are generally used as a way of controlling situations,” said Sewell. “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 responding. They should be de-escalating situations.”

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

Sewell and Saunders agreed that tasers should be limited only to specially trained officers with TPS, such as the Emergency Task Force. They also cited recent cases of abuse in Ontario, including one in which an 80-year-old Mississauga woman was injured after a Peel Regional Police officer allegedly tased her.

According to Saunders, an emotional highlight of the City Hall meeting was the testimony of a mental health worker, who recounted an instance when she had called the police out of fear that a female patient was about to commit suicide. After their arrival, the worker said, officers tased her.

“After she was tased, her entire life fell apart,” Saunders said. “It’s really sad.”