Ontario's government is changing its rules and allowing police services to put Tasers in the hands of frontline officers if the agencies choose to equip them, exactly a month after the shooting death of Sammy Yatim.

At a news conference alongside police chiefs, Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur disputed the notion that the decision was a knee-jerk reaction to Yatim's death, saying the plan was developed over time with input from police departments and the coroner's office.

Meilleur said the announcement was originally scheduled to take place in June - before Yatim was killed - but was postponed to this month. She did not specify a reason why the announcement was pushed back or why it's taken years to implement the changes.

The minister said her department continues to work on a use-of-force review looking at officer training, the equipment police use and how use-of-force incidents are reported. The review was ordered days after Yatim was shot multiple times and hit with a Taser by Toronto police early July 27.

The Liberal government's decision to expand Taser access to all frontline officers follows years of endorsements by Ontario police chiefs and recommendations from 12 coroner's inquest juries, who encouraged the province to consider or research the expanded use of Tasers as far back as 2004.

Ontario first authorized the use of Tasers in 2002.

Currently, provincial rules restrict Taser use to frontline supervisors and specialized officers, including tactical and hostage rescue teams. If a Taser is required under those circumstances but isn't immediately available, critical minutes can expire before they arrive, especially in parts of northern or rural Ontario where officers work solo and response times are greater.

Toronto police plan to begin equipping constables with Tasers in 2014, said deputy Chief Mike Federico.

Frontline officers with the RCMP and municipal police agencies in several provinces, including Quebec and B.C., are already carrying Tasers.

Meilleur's announcement was immediately met with skepticism from the Tories and lawyer Julian Falconer, who represented the family of a schizophrenic Collingwood man who died after an encounter with OPP in 2010.

A coroner’s inquest jury found the use of a Taser contributed to the accidental death of 27-year-old Aron Firman.

Falconer said he is troubled by the timing of Meilleur’s announcement.

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Falconer told CP24 reporter Sue Sgambati. “I find it difficult to accept that the timing of this announcement is completely unrelated to the Yatim matter.”

Falconer called the move a “Band-Aid solution,” saying it will not fully prevent deaths such as Yatim’s because police training remains in sufficient.

Falconer is calling on police agencies to implement mobile crisis teams involving officers and mental health workers who would team up to contain and de-escalate a situation involving a distressed person.

When the Firman inquest report was released earlier this year, one of the jury’s five recommendations was further training for officers dealing with mentally ill people.

Falconer said he has not received any notice that those recommendations have been addressed by the government.

Police services to pay for Tasers

Despite Tuesday's announcement, it doesn't mean every frontline officer in Ontario will carry the device. The final decision rests with the officer's employer, and it's up to police services to pay for it.

At a time when police budgets are being tightened, the province is not providing any funding to pay for Tasers or training, which will likely cost millions for police agencies as large as Toronto Police Service and Ontario Provincial Police.

The cost of a new Taser and three cartridges, containing barbed probes and wires, is about $1,500.

Because police services are picking up the cost, it may take some time for them to secure funding and complete training programs before bringing additional conducted energy weapons (CEWs) into service, if they choose to do so.

Meilleur and police chiefs who welcomed the announcement said the expansion will “enhance” public safety by giving frontline members another option when using force.

The minister said the government’s analysis of earlier studies found the use of CEWs has resulted in fewer “significant” injuries to subjects and police officers.

Police agencies that equip their officers with Tasers must follow guidelines on training, the overall use of the devices, maintenance, testing, record-keeping and reporting.

Officers are required to fill out a report every time a Taser is removed from its holster and each report is subject to a review.

Review recommended provincial standards

The governing Liberals previously explored Taser use when they ordered a review in 2008.

In a report issued the following year, Ontario’s policing standards advisory committee said it believes conducted energy weapons are “an appropriate law enforcement tool,” based on its review of reports, studies and data on police use before 2009.

The committee encouraged the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and police agencies to work together to establish provincial standards because operational procedures varied per police service at the time.

In 2010, the province introduced new guideline and training standards based on the committee’s review. The standards include circumstances and restrictions for use, reporting procedures, and medical considerations.

Taser use by police has been a controversial subject in Canada since the death of Robert Dziekanski, who died after he was repeatedly zapped with a Taser by the RCMP at Vancouver’s airport in October 2007.

A B.C. coroner’s report found Dziekanski died of a heart attack due to a physical confrontation and being zapped multiple times with the Taser.

In response to critics and claims that the use of a Taser can increase the risk of injury or death, Taser International vigorously defends its products and devotes a portion of its website to studies and reports in its favour.

“A number of independent reviews have affirmed the safety and life-saving value of TASER technology as a safer, more effective use of force,” the company says on its website. “TASER International confidently stands by TASER safety and effectiveness through research, proven field results, risk management review, education and the lives that are protected by TASER CEWs.”

Questions surround Yatim's death

In the days and weeks since Yatim's death, questions have been raised about the police officers' handling of the confrontation, including whether a Taser could have prevented the use of lethal force.

The 18-year-old man was armed with a knife when he was fatally shot as he stood alone on a streetcar at Dundas Street West and Bellwoods Avenue.

In a cellphone video recorded by a witness, police repeatedly yell "drop the knife" at Yatim before nine gunshots are heard. The gunshots are followed by the sound of a Taser, which was deployed after Yatim suffered multiple gunshot wounds.

Toronto police Const. James Forcillo has been charged with second-degree murder in Yatim’s death.

RCMP officers, for example, currently use two models manufactured by Arizona-based Taser International – the X26E and the Advanced Taser M26 – for use as an “intervention option to control a subject and avert injury to any person,” according to an operational manual published in 2012.

Accessories include a laser sight and, for the X26 model, an optional mounted digital camera that records video and audio when it is used.

Each Taser contains a computer chip that records information every time the device is used, including the date and time, the duration of each use, and the voltage level. The data can be downloaded onto a computer for record-keeping.

Police officers are trained to use the Taser in two ways: by aiming and firing at a person or by holding the device against a person’s body.

When the Taser is fired, it deploys two barbed probes that can pierce skin or attach to a person’s clothing. The probes are attached to wires that deliver the electric shock.

In Canada, stun guns are considered prohibited weapons. According to the law, Tasers can only be carried and used by law-enforcement officers, and they must be imported with a special permit.

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