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Government allows stun guns for frontline officers

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TORONTO – Ontario’s governing Liberals are going to allow all frontline police officers to carry stun guns following the fatal shooting of a Toronto teenager last month.

Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur says it will be up to local police forces to decide whether to equip their officers with the weapons, and it will be up to those forces to pay for them.

Meilleur says the decision was made after an extensive consultation with police and coroners across the province.

“This is the right decision to make and it will increase community safety by preventing injury and death,” she said at a news conference announcing the change.

Up to now, only supervising and specialized officers were allowed to carry stun guns, setting police in Ontario apart from counterparts in several other provinces along with the RCMP.

Police chiefs have been advocating for the expanded use of Tasers for years.

In an interview with AdvocateDaily.com, Toronto criminal lawyer Matthew Friedberg says the news is a welcome development, though he notes the price of the equipment and training will likely be an issue for individual forces.

“It’s long overdue, but as I understand it, the primary obstacle is cost,” says Friedberg. “It’s not simply cost in terms of the devices themselves, but the training as well. No device is perfect, and there’s certainly many cases that have documented difficulties with Tasers, but they certainly represent a much more reasonable middle ground in terms of a use-of-force option compared to a firearm.”

Friedberg says despite the government’s decision, it’s unlikely all frontline officers will now be equipped with Tasers.

“I surmise what you will find is a lot of police forces are going to have financial considerations still facing them, so while the ministry has now said, ‘If you want to use them, you can,’ I wouldn’t be surprised if they say, ‘That’s great in theory, but we don’t have the funds to train them,’” he tells AdvocateDaily.com.

In cases where Tasers are readily available for officers, Friedberg says positive outcomes are likely.

“I think some lives will certainly be saved; it’s a less lethal use-of-force option,” he says.

The issue has come under scrutiny after 18-year-old Sammy Yatim was shot multiple times and hit by a stun gun by police during a confrontation on an empty streetcar.

Videos of the incident sparked outrage and prompted hundreds of people to take to the streets in two separate marches to Toronto police headquarters.

The Special Investigations Unit has charged Toronto police Const. James Forcillo with second-degree murder.

In the wake of Yatim’s death, the Liberals said they would review officer training, equipment and how use of force incidents are reported.

Ontario’s ombudsman has launched his own investigation into the Yatim shooting, probing what kind of direction the provincial government provides to police for defusing conflict situations.

Retired justice Dennis O’Connor has been asked by Toronto police chief Bill Blair to lead a separate review of police procedures, use of force and police response to emotionally disturbed people.

-With files from AdvocateDaily.com

© 2013 The Canadian Press

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