Ontario stun gun review complete: report

Ontario is poised to revamp its guidelines on the use of stun guns by police with the changes expected to be made public March 30.
Ontario has completed its review on the use of stun guns by police and will issue new guidleines later this month, according to a report. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette/Canadian Press)

Ontario is poised to revamp its guidelines on the use of stun guns by police, The Canadian Press has learned.

The changes are expected to be made public March 30, sources say, about two years after the governing Liberals launched a review of Taser use in the province.

Currently, only tactical officers and supervisors are allowed to carry Tasers in Ontario, but the government is being urged to make them available to all front-line police officers.

It's among the recommendations made by the police standards advisory committee, a group of representatives from police groups and municipalities within the ministry tasked with providing advice to the government about the use of stun guns.

Ontario is already considered to be a Canadian leader in regulating the use of stun guns, said Larry Molyneaux, president of the Police Association of Ontario, which has a seat on the committee.

"What we're doing is actually just tightening it up in relation to training and regulations," he said.

Police organizations have long advocated for all uniformed police officers to be allowed to carry stun guns — otherwise known as conductive energy weapons -- arguing they're less lethal than guns and will save lives.

Uniformed police, rather than supervisors or tactical officers, are usually the first on the scene, Molyneaux said. In some rural areas of the province, it can take up to an hour to respond to a call.

"When you have a radio call and you're involved in a situation where you might need that CEW at the very onset, you don't have time to wait for somebody that carries one," he said.

"So what we want is the first responding officer to have the option of using that CEW."

Government officials wouldn't comment on whether they plan to follow that advice, but hinted that drastic changes are not in the works.

"We have and will continue — notwithstanding the report — to have a very measured use of Tasers in the province of Ontario," said Laura Blondeau, a spokeswoman for Community Safety and Corrections Minister Rick Bartolucci.

Progressive Conservative critic Garfield Dunlop said he's planning to re-introduce a resolution in the legislature demanding that all front-line officers carry Tasers.

"It will save lives," he said.

"With people that are just being completely out of hand ... where they have a case where they can put the person down and save his life as opposed to using a gun on him, then I think that it's fully warranted and it's fully acceptable to the general public as well."

Tasers have become an increasingly common tool for police across Canada, leading some critics to question whether the rules governing their use are adequate.

Some complain that Tasers are being used by police to subdue unco-operative people even when they don't pose a threat, while others maintain they're a useful tool if officers are properly trained and held accountable.

The bottom line is that stun guns can kill, and the government must be cautious in deciding whether to expand their use, said NDP justice critic Peter Kormos.

"We still don't know enough about when Tasers are lethal," he said.

In June 2008, a 36-year-old man died in Simcoe, Ont., after provincial police used a Taser. He collapsed upon arrival at the police detachment and died later in hospital.

Tasers have been in use in Ontario since 2002. Officers who carry them must undergo a two-day training course and follow guidelines that fall in line with the so-called "use of force" model that's taught to all police personnel, according to the Ontario Provincial Police Association.

Under the province's Police Services Act, any officer who uses a weapon other than a firearm on another person must report the incident to their police chief. Misuse of the weapon can result in criminal or police services charges, said Molyneaux.

The threshold is lower for using a Taser than a firearm, said association president Karl Walsh. A person must display "assaultive behaviour" before a Taser can be used.

Both federal and provincial governments are working on national standards for Taser use, but Ontario — which has its own police force, unlike some provinces which use the RCMP — is planning to forge its own path.

Any federal model will likely mirror Ontario's, because the province is "years ahead of everybody else," said Walsh.

Ontario launched its Taser review after the 2007 death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, which sparked a public inquiry in British Columbia.

Dziekanski died after being hit with a RCMP Taser at the Vancouver airport. A video of the confrontation taken by a fellow passenger was seen by millions of people and triggered public outrage and a re-examination of stun gun use.

In releasing its findings last July, Justice Thomas Braidwood called on the B.C. government to place severe restrictions on the use of Tasers, including that the weapons only be used when there's a threat of bodily harm.

Other provinces have also taken a second look at how they use stun guns, and the RCMP is planning a sweeping overhaul of its Taser policy.

At least 20 people in Canada are known to have died after being struck with a Taser.