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Let cops carry tasers, deputy chief urges

Toronto police officers at the Toronto Police College demonstrate a training scenario Thursday in which officers are confronted with a distressed armed individual.

Chris Young for The Globe and Mail/chris young The Globe and Mail

Front-line officers in Toronto should be allowed to carry tasers but provincial regulations prohibit them from doing so, said Deputy Chief Michael Federico in response to questions about how police respond to mentally ill people in crisis.

On Thursday, the Toronto police held a rare demonstration of how they are trained to deal with such situations. The news conference at the police college came less than a week after a man carrying two pairs of scissors and wearing a hospital gown was fatally shot on a street during an altercation with police. The event was organized before the death and police say they aren't permitted to discuss that incident while it is being investigated by the Special Investigations Unit.

Tasers are an option all trained officers should have, Deputy Chief Federico said in an interview, but Ontario regulations set out that only supervisors and specialized units can carry them.

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There's a supervisor on the road during every shift, the Deputy Chief said. "Police officers are not completely without access to a [taser] But again, situations may unfold too quickly for a supervisor to arrive."

Tasers, conducted energy weapons, have been under scrutiny since the death of Robert Dziekanski after he was tasered five times at the Vancouver airport in 2007. But in some jurisdictions outside of Ontario, they are a non-lethal option for front-line police when a situation calls for use of force.

"We ought to equip our officers with all of the options that will help make a situation safe," Deputy Chief Federico said. "That includes knowledge and skills and equipment."

A spokesman for the ministry in charge of policing said in an e-mail that there are no plans to change regulations "because the current use of force regulations meet Ontario's public safety needs."

The RCMP, a federal force, allows front-line officers throughout the country to carry tasers as long as they have taken the appropriate training and meet other requirements. "We don't discriminate between ranks," said Corporal David Falls.

Regulations have been beefed up in British Columbia since Mr. Dziekanski's death. Front-line police can still carry the weapons there as long as officers meet provincial standards.

Pat Capponi, a psychiatric survivor who co-chairs a mental health sub-committee of Toronto's police board, said she's unsure about broadening the use of tasers because of fatal incidents such as the one involving Mr. Dziekanski.

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She said that whenever a mentally ill person is injured in a confrontation with police, it sends shock waves through the community of those with mental health histories. "That's the feeling, we have nowhere to go if we're in trouble," Ms. Capponi said. She added she's encouraged by the training she's seeing of first responders in Toronto.

Following the deaths of two people – one disabled, and the other bipolar – last year, critics said Toronto police were not equipped to differentiate between a criminal threat and one originating from mental illness. The officers involved in both incidents were cleared by the SIU.

Deputy Chief Federico said all Toronto officers are guaranteed mental health training each year when they have two days of use-of-force training. It includes instruction on how to calm situations down verbally and realistic role-play scenarios that mimic responding to someone with a mental illness. Additional training varies by specific job and the year, he said.

Other police forces in Canada go further, offering officers week-long training specifically focused on dealing with the mentally ill. It's a program that was developed in Memphis, Tenn., that has had success in several cities in the U.S., and was recently adopted by York Region police.

Deputy Chief Federico said Toronto police aren't considering adopting the Memphis training model.

"Forty hours is a whole week of a police officer's time off the front line," he said. "I have to … make sure my police officers are on the road, delivering the service."

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As part of their response, Toronto police have teams of officers and nurses that respond to people in crisis, but because of potential danger, they only arrive after the first responders. These teams are not available in every division and have limited hours.

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