It took multiple shots from a Hamilton police Taser to take down a 27-year-old man who witnesses say went on a wild stabbing spree in an east end apartment building Saturday night. Witnesses say that in a confrontation with police after he was cornered, he had refused multiple demands to put down his weapon.
That suspect is now recovering in a hospital bed — and that raises the question: did a Taser save his life? As recently as last year, police officers have shot and killed suspects in similar — and even seemingly less dangerous — situations in which someone was armed.
- READ MORE: Man recounts fending off attacker in Hamilton stabbing spree
- READ MORE: Are Hamilton police quicker to resort to force?
The provincial Special Investigations unit has cleared two Hamilton police officers after they shot and killed former steelworker Steve Mesic last June. According to SIU reports, Mesic was walking towards the officers holding a shovel after wandering in traffic on the Linc.
And in Toronto, a police officer is facing a charge of second-degree murder following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a Toronto streetcar last year. Witnesses have said that Yatim was holding a knife while inside the empty streetcar.
'I think the cops are really starting to realize the public is keeping an eye on them.' - Norm Dorr, Taser advocate
In both of those instances, no one was injured except the shooting victims themselves — unlike Saturday night, when four people ended up rushed to hospital with stab wounds from a seemingly random attack in which witnesses say the assailant refused to drop his weapon.
Yet the police officers at the scene still didn’t fire their guns — which showed the viability of that less lethal use of force option. It also showed solid judgment and training, says Norm Dorr, who has been pushing for widespread Taser adoption and increased transparency from the Hamilton police service ever since his soon-to-be son in law Steve Mesic was shot.
“We had some good cops doing their jobs properly. I think it’s great. They saved a life,” Dorr said. “They did their jobs in the way they were supposed to. This goes to show you the more options a cop has in his toolbelt, the better off we are.”
'It can save lives'
That’s a sentiment that Hamilton police shares too. In a report to the police services board from September, the service presented a revamped conductive energy weapon (CEW) plan that is poised to get Tasers into the hands of more frontline officers. Conductive energy weapons are most commonly called Tasers.
'“It is considered a vital tool in law enforcement and used properly, it can save lives.' - Hamilton police report on CEWs
“The use of CEWs is an effective, less lethal force option available to police officers,” the report reads. “It is considered a vital tool in law enforcement and used properly, it can save lives.”
“This is not to say that in every incident involving an edged weapon a CEW will prevent the use of a firearm, however having a CEW available to every officer ensures that if the opportunity to resolve an incident using a CEW exists, officers will be able to exercise that option.”
Police Const. Claus Wagner confirmed a Taser was used at 221 Melvin Ave Saturday night after what witnesses are calling a series of vicious, random attacks by a man who appeared to have “lost his mind.” Wagner would not elaborate, citing the SIU investigation.
Until recently, Tasers were not a readily available option in every Hamilton police officer’s toolkit. But amidst calls from the public and advocates like Dorr, the two police associations representing current and former Hamilton officers have offered the $468,000 needed for an expansion project from a pension overflow fund dating back to 1996 after council balked at a request to increase police funding.
The program would see 519 Hamilton police officers trained to use Tasers, and would expand the service’s arsenal from 66 to 150 weapons. Original estimates pinned implementation costs at about $1 million.
'Please drop the knife'
The service is planning to phase in the program over three years. In years past, only patrol supervisors and members of tactical teams had access to these conductive energy weapons. As the program hasn’t been fully implemented, it was a patrol supervisor who brought in a Taser Saturday night to the east end stabbing scene, Wagner confirmed.
According to witness reports, the man was shocked with a Taser multiple times after breaking into numerous apartments and stabbing people with a vacant look on his face. The SIU is called in any time police are involved in an incident in which someone is severely injured, dies or alleges sexual assault.
A fifth floor resident of the building told CBC Hamilton that she saw some of the altercation between the man and police. He ran up the building’s fire escape to a building next door in an attempt to evade officers, she said.
“He went up on the balcony on the building behind the pizza place,” said the woman, who refused to give her name. “He was trying to kick in the door to get in there.”
The man failed to break in, she said, and police yelled at him about three times to drop his weapon.
“They kept asking him, 'Please drop the knife. Drop the knife. You have nowhere to go.' "
SIU awaiting toxicology reports
Then, the woman said, she heard three or four shots from what sounded like a Taser, followed by a voice yelling "'If you don’t drop the knife, we’re going to have to Tase you again.'"
It’s unclear if drugs, alcohol or mental health issues played a factor in the incident, says Jasbir Brar, spokesperson for the SIU. “It’s really early on in the investigation, and it will be a while before we have that information,” she said.
Dorr credited increased public scrutiny in the wake of the Steve Mesic and Sammy Yatim shootings as catalysts for the Taser decision. “I think the cops are really starting to realize the public is keeping an eye on them,” he said.
Hamilton police have carried Tasers since 2004, and 236 officers currently use them. Tasers were involved in 49 incidents in 2012, up from 22 the year before.
Of those incidents, 17 involved people described as “emotionally disturbed/mentally ill” by police.