Yesterday, September 24th, 2013, the Toronto Police Services Board mental health subcommittee led by Pat Caponi and TPSB chair Alok Mukherjee convened at Toronto’s City Hall Council Chambers to listen to the voices of those concerned about the potential arming of all front-line Toronto police officers with Tasers, also known as CEW’s or Conducted Energy Weapons. Deputations were received by those who have spoken out previously as well as concerned citizens upset by the G-20’s use of force policing practice and the recent fatal shooting of Sammy Yatim. Over 40 people, including myself, spoke out about their concerns regarding the addition of another weapon in the hands of Toronto police.
Sakura Saunders of Disarm Toronto Police asked everyone in council chambers to raise their hand if they thought that if Toronto police had been armed with Tasers during the G-20, it would have resulted in a better outcome. Not one person raised their hand in a room full of concerned citizens including police officers in attendance who were members of the city’s Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams – teams consisting of 2nd responder police officers and a mental health nurse who respond on a limited basis to crisis calls.
John Sewell, of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, asked why we would arm police with an additional weapon when there are issues with police use of force that we have not yet resolved. Sewell added that Tasers would not reduce fatalities and injuries as has been suggested because Tasers would not be the weapon of first choice by Toronto police in a situation where guns would be the first choice. Tasers, Sewell stated would be used as a tool of compliance and would actually increase the number of injuries. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association also denounced the imminent arming of all front-line Toronto police officers with Tasers, reporting that the UN has declared the Taser a tool of torture.
Consumer/survivors of the mental health system weighed in on the decision to add Tasers to the arsenal of weaponry already at the disposal of Toronto police. More than one member reported having positive experiences with Toronto police while in crisis to which they were thankful, yet added that if they were in a crisis where they were unable to respond in a way that Toronto police commanded, they feared being Tasered and asked that Tasers not be given to all Toronto police officers.
The most moving presentation was given by a front-line caregiver from a mental health drop-in. She delivered her message through tears, and apologies that this was close to her heart. She said that in the 12 years that she has worked at the drop-in, she has never experienced any acts of violence by members of the drop-in who range from those who have been diagnosed, those who have not and those who are homeless. She said that the one time she did dial 911, it was because a member of the drop-in spoke of harming herself. When police arrived, the member was beaten up and tasered. She said that as a result, the injured member of the mental health drop-in lost her children and was never the same again. This front-line caregiver said that she will never call 911 again and implored the board to recommend not allowing Toronto police to have Tasers.
Deputy chief of police, Mike Federico was in attendance. It has been reported that he is in favor of arming Toronto police with Tasers. Federico has stated that, “Our position on the expanded deployment is that the CEWs offer one more option, and police should have as many options as possible to help defuse situations”.
The resounding theme among all who spoke out against arming Toronto police with yet another weapon of compliance was that consistent use of de-escalation techniques, employing appropriate communication measures both verbal and physical by Toronto police to those in crisis would result in the best outcomes for everyone, for citizens and police, by reducing injuries and fatalities alike.
Toronto Police Services Board chair, Alok Mukherjee ended the Council Chambers meeting with assurance to all in attendance that the words of those present would be considered in any decision regarding arming all front-line Toronto police officers with Tasers and would be discussed at the next meeting of the TPSB on October 1st.
Below, you will find my deputation:
My name is Darlene Marett. I am a Registered Practical Nurse with experience working in long-term care with vulnerable members of our community – vulnerable people – many of whom have dementia, acquired brain injuries and other diagnoses that compromise their ability to comply with verbal instruction, requests or commands made upon them. I have spoken before the Toronto Police Services Board prior to this date on issues of police accountability in use of force situations where commands made upon those who are in mental health crisis may lead to poor outcomes.
The recent lethal shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim by a Toronto police officer followed with use of a Taser, is an example of the poorest outcome. It also seems to be an example of the poorest use of judgment by more than one Toronto police officer. But, I am just a nurse. Please Chief Blair, tell us if this is poor judgment. Or is it poor police training? Or is it a lack of empathic response by police officers? How do we begin to resolve this issue? Because it seems that we are at odds – us the vulnerable community and the Toronto Police Service that commands compliance or else. And for those of us who are able to comply, an interaction with Toronto police may result in only fear of police and mistrust at its worst. But for those of us who are unable to comply, the result can be death or injury.
And this is precisely what happened recently when an 80-year-old woman with dementia met up with three Peel police officers. Non-compliance was dealt with by use of Taser, incapacitating her immediately, causing her to drop to the ground and breaking her hip. Did you know that for the elderly, fracturing a hip can lead to such a dramatic decline that it becomes lethal within one year? So, we may not say that someone died directly from the use of a Taser, but, certainly use of the Taser, caused the fall that broke the hip, and contributed to someone’s death at least indirectly since it was the catalyst. It was the initial action, use of the Taser that caused the poorest outcome of all – death.
The Alzheimer’s Society reports that 1 in 11 Canadians over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s or a related disease. Our aging population is growing and increasing in number. It has been reported that our health care system will be unable to accommodate such a rapidly expanding number of elderly citizens. More seniors with dementia will be trying to continue to live at home. Due to the expanding senior population, police may encounter more citizens in the community with brain impairments – citizens who will have a compromised ability to follow orders from police to comply.
What we need Chief Blair is a police force who understand that non-compliance may mean inability to comply. What we need Chief Blair is a police force who serve the community with humanity and care – and compassionate response using de-escalation techniques versus escalation techniques and ammunition. I fear that arming the Toronto Police Service with another weapon, will result in a greater number of injuries and death to our citizens, not a reduction as has been proposed.
If we give the Toronto police officers more weaponry by arming them with Tasers, the message we are sending is loud and clear. And the message is this: ‘A potential reduction in lethality now allows us to continue to use force to gain compliance with Tasers’.
Today, I am asking the Toronto Police Service to consider reframing this statement: ‘A reduction in lethality and injuries is a positive outcome that will gain positive public recognition, enhanced public trust, and a greater level of public support for police officers who have been given the power to serve and protect us through the focus on, promotion of and expanded use of de-escalation techniques.’
What I’m asking Chief Blair, is to consider putting down the weapons. What I’m asking Chief Blair is to consider promoting the use of effective communication techniques built on a foundation of humanity and dignity for those unable to follow orders.
What I’m asking Chief Blair is to say NO to arming all front-line police officers with Tasers.
And for those unable to communicate due to dementia or crisis, and speaking on their behalf, please don’t harm us. No additional weapons please.