The day before Hamilton city councillors meet to decide whether to equip all Hamilton Police Services front-line officers with stun guns, a new Canadian report says Taser-related deaths are “extremely rare.”
However, better evidence is needed to understand the relationship between Tasers and other conductive energy weapons and adverse health effects, according to the report from the Council of Canadian Academies, in collaboration with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.
"Available studies suggest that while fatal complications are biologically plausible, they would be extremely rare," the report says.
The report, which looked at the medical and physiological impacts of such weapons, could put more weight behind a push from Hamilton police to equip all front-line officers with Tasers.
In August, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services announced all front-line officers in the province were authorized to carry conducted energy weapons. In September, Hamilton’s police services board requested City Council conduct a community consultation on equipping Hamilton officers with CEWs so they could begin training in January of next year.
Currently, 219 front-line officers are trained and certified to carry stun guns, while 579 would need to be trained, according to a letter to the city’s general issues committee from police chief Glenn De Caire.
Almost $1 million needed to train and equip Hamilton officers
Right now, only sergeants and members of specific tactical teams in Hamilton are outfitted with Tasers — meaning there are one to two available at any time in any given jurisdiction within the city.
The cost to train and equip all Hamilton front-line officers would be $992,462 and the topic of issuing stun guns is on the agenda at the city’s general issues committee meeting Wednesday. Police are also asking the city to pay for it.
The changes in August were welcomed by the family of Steve Mesic, a Hamilton man who was shot in a confrontation with police after checking himself out of a voluntary mental health care program earlier this year.
However, the report released Tuesday noted the absence of high-quality evidence makes it difficult to determine the health risks linked to stun guns.
A small number of cases have revealed a “temporal relationship” between stun guns and fatal cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), but there isn’t enough evidence to confirm or exclude a causal link, the report said.
But if there is such a link, the likelihood of someone suffering a cardiac death from being the target of stun gun is low, the report added.
Health factors may contribute to death
The report also looked into the relationship between sudden in-custody deaths and stun guns.
The study found that while the “electrical characteristics” of stun guns could potentially contribute to such deaths, there wasn’t enough evidence to confirm or exclude the weapons as a cause.
Drugs or alcohol, pre-existing health conditions and stress are among some of the factors that can potentially contribute to death, making it "difficult to isolate the contribution of any single factor."
The likelihood that a stun gun would be the sole cause of a sudden in-custody death is low, and what role it may play is unclear and dependent on other factors, the report said.
There are approximately 9,174 conducted energy weapons or stun guns in use in Canada. Since the late 1990s, at least 33 people have died following their use.
The Council of Canadian Academies is an independent, non-profit organization that works to provide information for public policy development. The Canadian Academy of Health Sciences is an independent assessor of science and technology issues relating to health.