Going Taser-happy in Canada?

Holstered police taser. Photo: Doctor_Q, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Holstered police taser. Photo: Doctor_Q, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Sometimes it’s the little incidents that generate big headlines and broader discussions. One small encounter, like this: “Ontario woman, 80, fractures hip after being struck with police taser”.

To be fair to the police, the woman was walking along a road in the wee hours of the night holding a knife, which she didn’t want to put down.

To be fair to Iole Pasquale, the 80-year-old in question, she was guilty of little more than being old and confused.

According to family members, Pasquale suffers from dementia and had simply gone wandering. Joe Warmington contacted Iole’s daughter, Angela Pasquale, and wrote more about that in this column:

A week later, her daughter still can’t accept any explanation for police using a Taser on her mother.

“She is an 80-year-old woman. Why would they do that? I could have defused that situation.”

She said her mother thought it was “the afternoon” and that she would go for a walk.

“It’s the first time she had wandered off,” she said. “She is not dangerous. She would never hurt anybody. Or bother anybody. She’s a gentle person.”

Although she did have a “bread knife,” Angela said, “my mother told me, it was down at her side and was never a threat.”

Angela also said her mother was telling police that the knife “is not for you.”

“Is there any reason, really, to ever Taser an 80-year-old in a state of confusion?” she asked. “I’m honestly baffled.”

This unfortunate incident came just one day after an Aug 27th provincial government announcement that all front-line police in Ontario would be permitted to carry Tasers, as reported by Global News Toronto:

Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur says the government will not mandate the use of “conducted energy weapons,” more commonly known by the brand name Taser, but will permit police forces to equip their officers if they choose. Previously, only supervisors and tactical officers were allowed to carry Tasers.

It should never be forgotten that policing is difficult, dangerous work. Many encounters do not become clear until dissected using 20-20 hindsight. Most of us do not want first responders hurt or killed if that can be avoided.

But it’s equally easy to see where these things go awry. After all, experts argue simply having a Taser at hand hugely increases the odds it will be used, and not always appropriately. Standards for using Tasers tend to be far lower than typical standards for pulling a gun.

It’s all cause for concern, as illustrated by this quote in a Toronto Star‘s article on the Pasquale incident:

David Harvey, of the Alzheimer’s Society of Ontario, said that over the past year, his organization has worked with the Ontario Police College to create better training for new officers. But that won’t reach officers already on duty.

“It’s unacceptable, in my mind. That woman could not have presented any kind of a life-threatening situation to police. Why use that kind of force to address it?”

Taser is a brand name that has become so well-known it gets used generically, like Kleenex or Band-Aid. The Taser company website has an odometer-like counter that claims the device had helped save close to 113,000 people from death or serious injury. While that number strikes me as unprovable and inflated, no doubt non-lethal options have saved many situations from even worse outcomes.

The use of such weapons has been common in Canada for some time now, but remains controversial. There have been a number of high-profile bad outcomes, some of which ripple sadly to this day.

In science fiction, the notion of a phaser set to stun seemed like a giant step forward: every target is harmlessly dropped, but all revive later with no ill-effects. A gentle faint, basically – even though simply falling tends to cause injury in real life. (Gravity can be hard on skulls or hips as they topple onto hard surfaces.)

Outside of Hollywood, we aren’t there yet.

What’s your idea of the proper use of force, non-lethal force – or words – when it comes to arrests or talking people into submission? Would that standard change if you wore the uniform and carried the gun, or the Taser?

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17 Comments on “Going Taser-happy in Canada?”

  1. oa says:

    Nice post. Not just a problem in Canada, though.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  2. Two Cents says:

    not the way andy griffith would have handled it.
    even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I don’t see tazing grandma.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  3. Walker says:

    To the man with a hammer in his hand, every problem looks like a nail.

    There are pretty clearly a number of people in uniform who shouldn’t be given the kind of power we give police. Maybe we need effective screening tests.

    What I find most egregious, though, is the situation described in your bad outcomes link, where the police closed ranks and obstructed attempts to investigate the incident. When police resort to such measures, the result should be jail time, not termination or assignment to desk duty.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  4. mervel says:

    Well when an officer of the law tells you to stop, to drop your knife and you don’t, what are the options?

    Its easier to armchair these sorts of things. I think the taser was appropriate.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 3 Thumb down 6

  5. Michael Greer says:

    On an 80 year old??? The Taser is almost always inappropriate, and especially on an elderly person.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3

  6. Walker says:

    “Well when an officer of the law tells you to stop, to drop your knife and you don’t, what are the options?”

    Knock the knife out of her hand maybe? She’s eighty years old and suffering from dementia. Gee, Mervel, how did cops ever survive before Tasers?

    What if it was a four year old with a knife? A pregnant woman?

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  7. Kent Gregson says:

    Clearly this is a situation where an officer could have helped a citizen. Clearly that is not what the officer did. Is there a disconnect between the officer and his duty to serve and protect the citizen?

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  8. mervel says:

    Sorry you can’t take those chances.

    http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/08/justice/arkansas-107-year-old-man-death/index.html?hpt=hp_t2

    107 and he is shooting from his room trying to kill the officer.

    Age is not relevant, it is a tragic situation no doubt about it, but when someone is armed and refuses to surrender to police commands, they have a right and a duty to act with force. A tasar is a better option than shooting.

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  9. Walker says:

    Mervel, a gun in the hands of an eighty year old woman would be different than a knife. You really think she was suddenly going to kill a cop with that knife? Besides, I thought these guys were all heros.

    So tell me– if the cop hadn’t had a taser, would you have felt shooting her was justified?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  10. Two Cents says:

    saw this today. old people are causing trouble everywhere it seems

    http://news.yahoo.com/107-old-arkansas-man-killed-shootout-police-175605336.html

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  11. Two Cents says:

    had to shoot him, he was “holed” up in there…….

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  12. Mervel says:

    Walker.

    I think people who we pay to enforce our laws; must take the action necessary to subdue a suspect who is refusing to comply with their commands; and that action should be the minimum required to subdue the person without injury or death. No they are not hero’s, but a taser is a good non-lethal method of disabling a threat. Every case is a judgement call, and in this case yes there may have been a better way? Possibly wrestling her to the ground, possibly using his club? There is no good answer. I do think that if you have cases of dementia or mental illness etc that you can identify, it would be good to have the resources available to help with those unique situations (mental health professionals etc), but those people are not always available, there are some programs that do provide them however.

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  13. Walker says:

    Well, we agree on one thing: every case is a judgement call. I just think this guy’s judgement sucked! Your mileage may vary.

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  14. oa says:

    Mervel,
    You always have an open mind, so this may be worth a read: http://www.salon.com/2009/08/10/tasers/

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  15. Walker says:

    Funny, I just came across the same article. Here are some good outtakes:

    Tasers are routinely used by police to torture innocent people who have not broken any law and whose only crime is being disrespectful toward their authority or failing to understand their “orders.” There is ample evidence that police often take no more than 30 seconds to talk to citizens before employing the taser, they use them while people are already handcuffed and thus present no danger, and are used often against the mentally ill and handicapped. It is becoming a barbaric tool of authoritarian, social control…

    …It featured an Idaho man on a bicycle who happened to ride past a police stop in progress on the side of the road. He had nothing to do with the stop, but was pulled over by the police and told to produce his ID. He said, correctly, that he had no legal obligation to produce ID and the police insisted he must. The situation escalated and he demanded that they call a supervisor to the scene when the police said they were going to arrest him. He ended up being tasered seven times — you can hear him moaning in pain on the tape at the end. (In an especially creepy moment, the police try to confiscate the tape of the incident.)…

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  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    A little known use for a stun is to service vending machines as this story from the Post Star shows.

    “Stun gun charge dismissed against town supervisor”
    http://poststar.com/news/local/stun-gun-charge-dismissed-against-town-supervisor/article_abbe7d5a-1735-11e3-bfe7-0019bb2963f4.html

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  17. Walker says:

    Incredible! You don’t need 50,000 volts to test a circuit.

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