Lester Donaldson suffered from schizophrenia but it was a confrontation with police in his home in August 1988 during which police fired on him that ended his life at age 44. We may never know if the use of a stun gun would have had a different outcome.
In Montreal earlier this week, yet another person died following an encounter with police officers who used a stun gun on him. Reports are that the deceased was an escapee from a detention centre for the criminally insane.
Since the late 1990s there have been close to 35 deaths related to police use of stun guns, commonly referred to by their brand name, Taser. It was close on the heels of the shooting death of 17-year-old Sammy Yatim by a Toronto police officer – Yatim was also reportedly Tasered after he was felled by police fire – that Police Chief Bill Blair went to the Toronto Police Service Board with a request for $340,000 to purchase 184 additional Tasers for frontline officers. The Board’s decision came last week denying the Chief’s request.
We need our police force to strongly adhere to de-escalating methods when intervening in crises such as those brought on by mental illness. Adding more weaponry tells us that the police are not focusing enough on incorporating recommendations that came out of the 1998 inquest following the shooting death of Edmond Yu, a former University of Toronto medical student who developed schizophrenia. Five Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, as second responders, on call only until 10 p.m., is not going to be enough.
Despite receiving training in methods for calming a person in crisis in order to get control of the situation, officers often revert to their default use-of-force training in these situations. The notion that officers would choose the Taser does not bear out.
Significant loss of trust for police by the general public is the outcome of these police encounters that end in fatalities. A number of surveys reveal that mistrust of the police has actually increased in the past 20 years all across this country. More Tasers will not solve that.
Police training leans heavily toward a paramilitary structure, but unless the police force begins to actively engage a more pro-social methodology within their procedures in response to these vulnerable individuals there will continue to be even more loss of trust. Therefore, seeking to add more weapons is clearly not the best solution if the aim is to build a relationship of mutual respect and cooperation with the general public.
The argument in favour of arming more officers with Tasers is that when used, they do not kill but rather subdue a police target. Guns fired at targets by the police, aiming as they do at the largest part of the body, often lead to fatalities, as was the case with Yatim. But officers only use Tasers according to the level of perceived danger, in confrontations deemed non-life threatening.
The latest coroner’s inquest, this one into the shooting deaths of three persons with mental illness, revealed that new officers receive training in de-escalating crises including talking softly to a person exhibiting mental illness. This contrasts with standard police operation in which warnings are shouted sharply and loudly at subjects to drop whatever weapon he or she is considered to be carrying. Furthermore, in these confrontations, there is often very little elapsed time, usually only seconds, between an officer’s shouted orders and discharge of a police firearm.
The emphasis in modern policing should not be on arming police with different weaponry, but on innovating effective responses aimed at de-escalating crisis situations related to mental illness. After all, Tasering an 80-year-old woman, as has happened, seems like the poorest choice in police response.
We have to see ourselves as a better society than one whose main option for vulnerable members in crisis is to stop them with police bullets or Tasers. Policing has to be more than cops-and-robbers. A strong social development aspect within the police force must become part of the framework for maintaining law and order and in building a progressive society. If this is not the direction, we can anticipate even greater cleavage between the police force and the public.