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No More Tasers Without Better Safeguards

The Toronto Star - October 18, 2013

The Huffington Post - October 19, 2013

By Colin Kenny

The negative reaction among liberal-minded citizens to the news that the Ontario government will allow more front line cops to use electroshock weapons was predictable – they didn’t like it.

But if the government would take a few steps to improve the odds that these weapons will be properly used, even the most liberal-minded among us should welcome their expanded role as an alternative to the use of guns.

There is no doubt that electroshock weapons – we’re mostly talking about the Tasers™ manufactured by Taser International – have been improperly used by some trigger-happy cops, most notably in the death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver Airport.

Electroshock weapons aren’t toys – they’re classified as prohibited weapons in Canada. They can only be used by police forces. There is evidence that they can play a significant part in fatal outcomes.

But they can also lead to much more positive outcomes in serious confrontations than otherwise might be the case. It would be foolish for the Government of Ontario not to do everything in its power to try to elicit those kinds of outcomes.

If junior officers are going to be allowed to carry these weapons, I would suggest that three conditions –nowhere to be seen in the province’s announcement – should apply.

First, ensure that Tasers cannot be activated without audio-video accompaniment. Toward a Red Serve Revival, a position paper published by six senators in 2010, recommended that front line police be equipped with cameras.

There are lots of recording devices around – some of which attach to Tasers and others that attach to officers’ clothing. Various police forces are experimenting with them. This shouldn’t be up to individual police forces. The province should have a policy on when Tasers can be used, and should decide which types of cameras work best, and require that any use of a Taser be sound recorded and videotaped.

Some cops will resist, but they are wrong-headed to do so. Police should applaud the fact that video recordings will help protect them from false accusations of unnecessary brutality. A study done by an officer with the Rialto, California police department showed that in the year after body cameras were introduced the number of complaints against police officers in the city fell by 88 percent.

On the other side of the coin, the use of force by officers fell by 59 percent.  “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better,” says Rialto Police Chief William Farrar. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

Condition 2 should be the establishment of training standards for all police forces operating in the province, including a requirement that officers using Tasers be recertified on an annual basis. The training should focus on more than when and how a Taser may be used. It should also focus on ways of producing less violent outcomes to confrontations than the use of guns, electroshock weapons and batons.

Critics of arming more officers with Tasers argue reasonably that carrying such a weapon makes it more likely that the weapon will be used. The complimentary use of cameras should discourage increased usage, but so would standardized training encourage non-violent settlement mechanisms.

The coroner’s jury investigating the death of Aron Firman, a schizophrenic who died after being hit by a police Taser in June 2010, called for better police training and greater use of “resource crisis teams” to de-escalate disputes.

The Braidwood Inquiry Report into the use of Tasers in British Columbia expressed astonishment that the province did not set province-wide standards in the use of these weapons:

“This has resulted in a blurring of policy and training, inconsistencies in both policy and training among municipal police departments, an unhealthy dependence on the manufacturer respecting contentious policy issues, and a quite extraordinary ‘usage creep.’”

Condition 3 is simple. Up-to-date Tasers, cameras and more training will cost money. Police forces are currently strapped for funds, and so are municipalities.

Prosecutors I have spoken to say that videotaping confrontations between the police and the public tend to produce more guilty pleas. That not only serves the cause of justice, it reduces court costs and speeds up the judicial process.

If the Ontario government really wants to improve policing, it should cough up the money to buy electroshock weapons that – coupled with good training and the use of audio-visual recorders – will reduce fatalities and lead to fairer outcomes in court. It should also pay for enhanced computer capacity in police forces to help integrate videotapes testimony.

Without that kind of investment, the doubters will have a good point. The government would be rolling the dice every time things get hot on the front lines.

[Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca]