More Tasers, more problems?

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In December 2017, Ottawa’s Police Services Board approved a $250,000 purchase of 140 conducted energy weapons, more commonly known as Tasers. At the same time the Ottawa police indicated that in 2018 they plan to ask the board to arm even more police officers with energy weapons.

This seems to be a part of a coordinated effort by police forces to push for more energy weapons. The Toronto Police don’t want to be left out. Recently, they asked for almost $1 million to buy 400 new Tasers.

The proponents of spending millions of dollars to arm local police forces with energy weapons make what seems, at first blush, a compelling case. They say that Tasers will save lives - instead of drawing a deadlier firearm police officers can reach for their Taser. They are also quick to point to an apparent lack of injuries caused by energy weapons. And they are backed-up by multiple coroner's inquests which have recommended that Tasers be deployed to all front-line officers.

 

But, if all police officers have Tasers could they be overused? Don’t worry says Toronto police deputy chief Barbara McLean – Tasers will “never to be used as a substitute for de-escalation.”

But it turns out that if more police officers have more Tasers they are more likely to be used more often. In 2015, the Ottawa Police Services Board approved - without any deliberation – the purchase of 100 energy weapons. Unsurprisingly the next year there was an 84-percent increase in Taser use.

So, let’s do what the Ottawa’s Police Services Board did not do and engage in some deliberation.

While a 2011 US Department of Justice study found that although Taser use reduced rates of injury the use of Tasers was still associated injury and death. In short, there is less chance of injury when comparing a suspect shot with a Taser to a suspect subdued by a police dog. But to be clear, in a civilian and police encounter, the injury or death caused by Taser use is always that of the civilian.  

But an argument that Taser use can decreases injuries only hold water if there is not an overuse of Tasers once they are put in the hands of every police officer.

The Department of Justice study also found that when Tasers are made widely available to police, the evidence shows that they “rapidly overtake other force alternatives” and in some cases, were being used at rates that exceeded that of officers using “soft empty hand tactics.” The study also raised concerns about the growing use of Tasers finding that substituting Tasers for physical control tactics raise the spectre of overuse.

So, there is good reason to be skeptical of claims, like those made by Toronto police deputy chief Barbara McLean, that Tasers will “never to be used as a substitute for de-escalation.”

But we can all agree that there is less risk of injury from being shot with a Taser than being shot with a firearm. So, if Taser use decreases firearm use then maybe more putting a Taser in every police officer’s hand if a good thing.

But that assumption has been called into question too. A recent University of Chicago study found that “there is no evidence that Tasers led to a reduction in police use of firearms.”

And there is justifiable concern that when Tasers are used they will be disproportionately used on vulnerable populations. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) voice this concern to the Toronto police board saying that CEW use “raises serious human rights concerns because people with mental health disabilities tend to have more frequent contact with police and may be more likely to have a Taser used on them because of behaviours and responses to police instructions that appear ‘unusual’ or ‘unpredictable.’

There is research to back up the OHRC’s concerns. After a comprehensive review of prior data and evidence the Stanford Criminal Justice Center concluded: “while the literature suggests that [Tasers] may have benefits, these benefits are easily overstated. Moreover, realizing those potential benefits—such as reducing the rate of injuries to officers and possibly suspects—may require accepting the possibility that vulnerable populations are more likely to be exposed to the painful effects of [Taser use]. Meanwhile, the “costs,” or potential harms, of using [Tasers] are not yet fully understood.”

The evidence is clear that arming more officers with Tasers will lead to their overuse, especially on vulnerable populations. The available evidence also suggests that the benefit of increased Taser use is dubious. 

And then there is the opportunity cost involved in further arming our police. Maybe all of those millions and millions of dollars could be better spent. Perhaps investing in frontline mental health workers would better improve public safety and community health. 

There have been recommendations in some coroner’s inquests to increase the use of Tasers but former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci’s 2014 report reviewing the Toronto polices’ use of lethal force sounded a note of caution pointing to the “absence of definitive research into the risks of CEWs for populations who are likely to encounter the police in non-criminal contexts.” 

Iacobucci recommended that the Toronto Police study the medical impacts of CEW use – the police force refused. 

All told Iacobucci made 15 recommendations relating to energy weapons. Most of these recommendations involved oversight, training, and further study. 

None of the recommendations suggested that a majority of police officers should be armed with Tasers. Iacobucci recommended caution and further study.

When you take the time to actually consider the evidence about Taser use that should come as no shock.