New provincial regulations allow police to put less lethal Taser weapons in the hands of all frontline officers, but Hamilton will be hard pressed to afford them with the current budget crunch, some councillors say.
The Tasers don't come cheap. One Taser with three cartridges costs about $1,500.
And the option of purchasing the Tasers is coming at a time when Hamilton's police force has received staunch resistance when pushing for an increase in its budget from council. The Hamilton police budget was approved after months of tense negotiation back in April — a 3.52 per cent increase over 2012's budget.
"The province has the habit of imposing changes without the necessary funding," Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla told CBC Hamilton. "It's political gamesmanship at its worst."
Councillor Terry Whitehead says he'd like to see police try to to fund Tasers from within its existing budget.
Funding is just one of the issues raised by those commenting on the decision: Others say the focus should be more on training officers and changing their approach to use of force, while civil liberties advocates worry about the impact for those with mental health or additction issues.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Ontario Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur heralded the move as a positive change that will widen the use-of-force options available to police.
Prior to Tuesday's announcement, Ontario had restricted the use of Tasers to a select few supervising and tactical officers, setting Ontario police apart from counterparts in several other provinces and with the RCMP.
"This is the right decision to make and will increase community safety by preventing injury and death," she said.
While Merulla agrees that a use of force option that's less lethal is a positive thing, he says all that's really happening here is funding problems are being "downloaded to the municipality."
Merulla says the province is just posturing and "hiding for cover" in the wake of the Sammy Yatim shooting in Toronto. It's been one month since the 18 year old was shot multiple times and stunned with a Taser by police during a confrontation on an empty streetcar.
"This is a Mickey Mouse operation," he said.
A hefty expense
'It could have potentially saved Steve's life — but that doesn't help me now.'—Sharon Dorr, Steve Mesic's fiancee
The onus for paying for the Tasers will lie with each individual police service, Meilleur says.
The original budget request Chief Glenn De Caire presented to council was an over five per cent increase over last year.
Mayor Bob Bratina — the recently elected chair of the Hamilton Police Services Board — told CBC Hamilton that Hamilton police "fully supports the minister in this decision."
"It's an authorized, intermediate, less-lethal force option for officers to enhance public and officer safety," Bratina said. "Chief De Caire is expected to bring a recommendation to the board regarding funding and policy oversight to the next board meeting."
But Bratina also pointed out that there are more costs here than just the Tasers themselves. "Affordability is not just about equipment," he said in an email. "Combined with the training component, costs may well be onerous."
Bratina did not respond when asked just how Hamilton police could afford those costs.
Ward 8 Coun. Terry Whitehead told CBC Hamilton that he would be "more inclined to support" Taser implementation if the police board can do it "without increasing costs."
"But what's [Police Chief Glenn De Caire] prepared to give up to do that?" he asked. "The horses?"
'It doesn't help me now'
Local politicians aren't the only people who are skeptical about where the funds for Tasers could be found. Sharon Dorr — whose fiancé Steve Mesic was shot by police in Hamilton in June — also has her doubts.
"I wouldn't be shocked if later on we hear that police can't afford Tasers because of the budget," she said. "In the end, it comes down to cost."
She says she has "mixed feelings" about the ministry decision, but is trying to look for the positives. "If it saves one person from dying or feeling like I do, I'm happy for that."
"It could have potentially saved Steve's life — but that doesn't help me now."
Whitehead says the budget issue should be a secondary conversation to a larger one on how force is used by police officers in Ontario. He says a policy overhaul has been a long time coming. "The bigger question here is when use of force should be utilized," he said.
"There has to be a community discussion on this issue - it can't just be left in the hallways of police stations," Whitehead said. "There has to be an alternative."
Still can be lethal
Though a less lethal option than using a gun, Tasers can still kill. Aron Firman died in June 2010 after an encounter with Ontario Provincial Police. Firman, 27, had schizophrenia, and died after being jolted with a Taser.
A post-mortem report by Ontario's chief forensic pathologist indicated Firman died from "cardiac arrhythmia precipitated by electronic control device deployment in an agitated man."
The provincial Special Investigations Unit concluded that the officer was not at fault in connection with the death. But Firman's father, Marcus Firman, said the officers made things worse that night.
"Aron was obviously going through some sort of crisis, but at the time they entered there he was actually sitting down and they were able to ask him some questions," he said. "But they actually escalated it by threatening him with jail — actually telling him he was going to go to jail. He reacted to that … and he was Tasered … which killed him."
After Tuesday's announcement, The Canadian Civil Liberties Association announced concernes over the government's decision to authorize expanded Taser deployment.
"The CCLA urges police forces instead to invest in de-escalation training, and mental health and disability crisis response teams, rather than additional weaponry," the association said in a statement.
The CCLA is also concerned about the impact this decision will have on people with mental health and addictions issues. These are people who, studies suggest, are more likely to be Tasered, the association says.
"CCLA will be closely monitoring expanded CEW deployment," Sukanya Pillay, interim General Counsel. "In our view, resolution through de-escalation should be the goal."