Taser announcement 'step in right direction,' Mesic family says

The Ontario government is, for the first time, allowing frontline police officers to use Tasers — something that Steve Mesic's family says is a small step in the right direction.
Ontario Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur announced Tuesday that frontline police officers are now able to carry Tasers. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

The Ontario government is for the first time allowing frontline police officers to use Tasers — something that Steve Mesic's family says is a small step in the right direction.

Ontario Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur made the announcement Tuesday, two-and-a-half months after Mesic was shot in a confrontation with police after checking himself out of a voluntary mental health care program in Hamilton.

It's also exactly one month since Sammy Yatim, 18, was shot multiple times and stunned with a Taser by police during a confrontation on an empty streetcar in Toronto.

"It's a small start, as far as I'm concerned," said Norm Dorr, father of Mesic's Fiancée, Sharon Dorr. "At least the government is on the right track."

Meilleur says existing rules that limit the use of Tasers — also known as stun guns or conductive energy weapons (CEWs) — will be changed to clear the way for individual police forces to set their own guidelines about which officers can use them. 

'The only reason the government is moving the way they are on this is the Sammy Yatim shooting was caught on video.'—Norm Dorr, father of Mesic's Fiancée

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.

Right now, just 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.

Every time a police officer uses a stun gun it will be recorded and reviewed, Meilleur says, citing existing police use of force guidelines.

Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire was present at the news conference for the announcement Tuesday, but did not speak or take any questions. In a written statement made Tuesday afternoon, Hamilton police said that the announcement was important for "enhanced public and officer safety."

"The authorization to use conductive energy weapons provides a less lethal option to our officers," the statement reads. "The Chief will be making recommendations for funding and implementation to the Hamilton Police Services Board in the near future."

'The right decision to make'

Meilleur says the move will widen the use-of-force options available to police.

"This is the right decision to make and will increase community safety by preventing injury and death," she said.

She also said the decision to expand stun gun use is based on research, stakeholder input and past inquests by coroners, and added that the province will keep a "watchful eye" on how stun guns are used by police.

Meilleur told reporters at a news conference that the Yatim shooting did not play a role in Tuesday's decision, saying it was something "we have been paying very close attention to for many years."

"I feel for the family, I feel for the individual, but since this is before the court, I'm not going to comment on it," she said.

"This has no impact on the process we have been following."

But Dorr told CBC Hamilton that he doesn't buy that argument. "The only reason the government is moving the way they are on this is the Sammy Yatim shooting was caught on video," he said.

A hefty cost

The cost that comes with purchasing more Tasers for a police force will no doubt be a factor for many organizations. One Taser with three cartridges costs $1,500.

Hamilton's police force has been pushing for an increase in its budget. 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 original budget request Chief Glenn De Caire presented to council was an over five per cent increase over last year.

The onus for paying for the Tasers will lie with each individual police service, Meilleur says.

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."

With files from CBC's Genevieve Tomney, The Canadian Press