Ottawa Police today invited the public to participate in an online survey on the further deployment of Conducted Energy Weapons, or CEW’s.

The province recently re-wrote the guidelines governing the use of stun guns by local police forces, following the shooting death of teenager Sammy Yatim aboard a Toronto streetcar. That could mean arming front-line officers — not just supervisors and tactical specialists — with CEW’s.

Alistair Steele municipal reporter CBC Ottawa

Alistair Steele is the municipal reporter for CBC Ottawa.

The appeal is obvious, at least from the perspective of the police, who tend to like CEW’s because they see them as a non-lethal method of incapacitating violent suspects. But currently in Ottawa, because of their limited deployment, there could be as few as five of the weapons in circulation at any given time. In some situations, the time it takes to get a CEW to the scene of a volatile standoff could mean the difference between life and death.

Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau wants to get CEW’s in the hands of his front-line officers. But he’s vowing to do it by the book. In its new guidelines the province encourages local Police Service Boards to seek community input, and this online survey is the first step in fulfilling that suggestion.

Targeted outreach planned as well

Bordeleau is also promising "targeted" outreach to groups with a stake in the issue, including the Canadian Mental Health Association, as well as civil rights and social justice groups. Ottawa Police are even promising “community ride-alongs” to give members of public a chance to better understand the challenges facing front-line officers, and presumably to hammer home the message that having more CEW’s out on the beat will save lives.

That’s an ambitious — and commendable — public consultation plan. But not all members of the Police Services Board see the need for it. Consider this statement by Barrhaven councillor Jan Harder, just before the board voted in favour of the plan (Harder voted for it too, despite the speech).

“Conducted energy weapons are not new, and we have assurance that all the checks and balances are going to be in place. And add to this the fact that CEW’s have been proven to be an effective tool to help the public and our police officers. To hesitate and delay because someone may come forward and argue against — well of course they’re going to, it’s very rare when we have public consultation that anyone comes forward that does agree with you, and I certainly have been a part of enough public consultations to say that — so I have a lot of confidence in the Chief coming forward after he does his due diligence, and I think at the beginning and the end of this process, we can’t forget that CEW’s are tools that save lives, and they have been doing so for the past decades.”

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Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau wants to equip an additional 300 officers with stun guns.

Harder is correct that there’s evidence CEW’s save lives. It’s the same research the province used when it moved to expand deployment. But there are others who have studied the issue and come to different conclusions. Following the death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver’s airport in 2007, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP produced a scathing report that raised serious questions about the way police use tasers. As the Commission’s former chair Paul Kennedy told Alan Neal on CBC’s All in a Day last week: “Statistically it might be one of a thousand, one of a hundred thousand, so death can occur from this. So this isn’t a benign tool.”

Will police rely too much on stun guns?

Ontario has ordered local police forces to increase training for officers who carry CEW’s from eight hours to 12 hours, with the additional time devoted to “judgement-based training, including de-escalation techniques.”

But is that enough training to prevent the over-use of CEW’s? As Kennedy found, “the experience virtually of every other police force when CEW’s are introduced, its use overcomes all other use-of-force options that police have available to them.”

In a typical year, Ottawa Police use stun guns just 18 times, and there’s never been a death or serious injury here. But that number will increase significantly if and when the weapons are made available to 300 front-line officers. So too will the odds that something will go wrong.

Community concerns need to be given a fair hearing, and need to be honestly reflected in the Chief’s report to the board this Spring. Ignoring those voices because they disagree, as Jan Harder seems to be suggesting, only justifies the suspicions of those who already believe public consultation in Ottawa is a meaningless sideshow staged to placate critics and stifle dissent.