With the provincial government’s announcement that it would allow local police forces the opportunity to arm their frontline officers with Tasers and Hamilton Police chief Glenn De Caire’s desire to add them to his officers’ tool belt, their arrival on Hamilton streets seems to be a fait acompli.
However, there are enough questions outstanding to lead some to wonder whether giving Tasers to our cops is a good idea.
First, there is the question of safety. While supporters will rightly point out that most people who are Tasered suffer no lingering side effects, there have been several high profile cases, including one involving the RCMP at Vancouver’s airport, where individuals have died as a result of having the device used on them.
Second, there is the matter of cost. At around $1,800 a unit, it would cost the city close to $1.2-million to purchase Tasers for members (and that doesn’t include the cost of training, or maintenance of the units). In an era where all departments are being asked to cut their budgets is this the best way to spend scarce tax dollars?
Third, there is a concern by giving officers another technological method of resolving crises; they’ll reach for their Tasers rather than trying to calm a potentially violent situation using their non-violent conflict resolution training.
The call for allowing greater access to Tasers follows in the wake of the shooting death of Sammy Yatim by Toronto police. According to reports, Yatim brandished a knife on a streetcar and was acting aggressively toward other passengers. When it appeared to officers that Yatim was coming toward them, they reacted with the only tool they had for the job, their firearms.
Would Yatim be alive today if the officers had Tasers they could have chosen to use instead? No one can say. But what can be said is that the greater the number of non-lethal options police have when confronting a potentially violent situation the better. The more viable options available to the officer short of pulling his or her gun can only lower both the number of injuries and death sustained by both suspects and officers.
The real key is training. If officers are instructed to use their Tasers sparingly, only when there is a real danger of injuries to the public, the suspect or themselves, then having that option will be a benefit to the public and to those in vulnerable communities, such as those with mental illness, who often find themselves at odds with the police. On the other hand, if training is lacking, or if some officers become a little too eager to try out their new “toy” then giving out Tasers will be something that the city learns to regret.
There is good reason to believe that the former rather than the latter will be closer to the mark. According to the Spectator, Hamilton police only fired their Tasers (currently local police have 66 Tasers used for training and issued to supervisory officers) 14 times last year often in situations where the use of a firearm would not have been a disproportional response to the situation.
However, as Tasers are issued to more and more officers, it will be important for the Police Board to ensure that they are being used wisely.