Steve Mesic’s family can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the police officers who shot him had been equipped with Tasers.
But the confrontation with police that ended with the 45-year-old former steelworker being shot steps from his home happened back in June — before the provincial government announced it was allowing all frontline police officers to use Tasers.
At that point, only a select few members of Hamilton police were able to carry conducted energy weapons (CEW). The two officers at the scene didn’t have them.
'Because neither officer had a conducted energy weapon on his person, this use of force option was not available to them.' - SIU director Ian Scott
The provincial Special Investigations Unit cleared the officers of any wrongdoing on Wednesday. In that decision, SIU Director Ian Scott said that the two officers who shot Mesic were justified in using lethal force. But he also made a point of mentioning they did not have the option of a less lethal weapon — Tasers.
“Because neither officer had a conducted energy weapon on his person, this use of force option was not available to them,” he wrote in an SIU press release.
That issue has been troubling Mesic's family since the incident, and Scott's mention gives it even more credence.
The Taser option
The family has not commented since the SIU report was released Wednesday, but in an interview with CBC Hamilton shortly after the incident, Mesic’s fiancée Sharon Dorr talked about Tasers and what might have been.
“They knew they were coming to a call where a man was in distress,” she said in that interview. “They knew that. They were given a heads up.”
Mesic had been seen walking headlong into traffic on the Jolley Cut and on the Linc, hours after he checked himself out of a voluntary mental health care program at St. Joseph’s Hospital, early in the morning on June 7. He was shot after walking towards two police officers with a shovel slung across his shoulder “like a baseball bat” outside his home on Upper Wentworth Street, the SIU says.
“He wasn’t running around with a firearm, he was clearly in a moment of crisis. I think even an untrained person would know that,” Dorr said in that earlier interview. “In a moment of crisis, how do you call in someone to use a Taser? You wait? Why isn’t there someone always called in to a distress call with a Taser?”
“Why would police officers be allowed to carry firearms but not Tasers, when they’re way more lethal? That doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever.”
Since Mesic’s death, and in the wake of the Sammy Yatim shooting in Toronto, the province announced rules that had limited the use of Tasers were changing to clear the way for individual police forces to set their own guidelines about which officers can use them.
Prior to the 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.
Mesic's family, alongside other families of people shot by police officers in Ontario, met with the Ontario Ombudsman Thursday. Ombudsman Andre Marin is doing a review of police use of force guidelines.
Hamilton police chief Glenn De Caire wants the Tasers and has said the service will need close to $1-million to equip and train all frontline officers. Councillors have been cool to the idea of spending any more money on policing, especially after last year’s drawn out battle over the police budget.
'It is considered a vital tool in law enforcement and used properly can save lives' - Hamilton police report on Tasers
But police argue in an internal report that the budget considerations have to be weighed against Tasers' potential to save lives.
"The use of CEWs is an effective less lethal option...It is considered a vital tool in law enforcement and used properly can save lives,' concludes the report.
"This initial cost must be balanced against the reality of the financial, personal and public cost of injury or death in an incident where a CEW could have been utilized."
In 2012, Hamilton police used Tasers 49 times — an increase of 112.7 per cent over the 22 incidents in 2011. But in 35 of the 49 incidents, it was deployed in “display mode” only, according to a police services board agenda.
Tasers were used 17 times to control “emotionally disturbed” or “mentally “ill” people.