What is the specific need for a 370 percent increase in Tasers for the London Police Force? What exactly is happening or about to happen in London that there is call for an increase in the arsenal of officers?
An enforcement perspective may not provide the best response for the public. I mainly hear enforcement agencies calling for Taser use and proliferation and I am worried that such endeavors are more important to enforcement than public safety when it comes to mental health.
I attended a presentation by the Chief of Police at Regional Mental Health Care London. During the questions following, someone asked about the use of Tasers on mentally ill individuals. In answer, the chief insisted its use was preferable to other measures and rationalized its use as nothing to be alarmed at as officers themselves shoot each other. My question to that anecdotal argument is how many officers were at the time suffering from a serious mental illness? To assume it is harmless because officers themselves have tested it is short sighted and dangerous. What a healthy individual can endure and recover from can be an entirely different point for someone who is not healthy or specifically mentally ill.
In mental health matters sometimes a voice command is ineffective. Consider that behaviour creates the police response and symptoms are responsible for this impairment and may further hinder the individual from effecting a safe and healthy interaction with police. Warning someone who is unable to respond appropriately is seemingly productive but predominantly pointless.
The chief seemed pleased that 24 of the times the Taser was pulled individuals complied with voice commands. Possibly he needs to consider those who in fact hear other voices. Voice commands may not induce co-operation in a mentally ill individual. If the Taser is present and pulled in an instance of mental illness I would argue that the rate for its use will be higher. Symptoms create the non-compliance so they need to be reacted to as an illness rather than using only enforcement guidelines. This is a health concern and I doubt 12 weeks at Ontario Police College qualifies anyone to administer a potentially lethal voltage to mentally ill civilians.
Fifty thousand volts causing uncontrollable muscle contraction and pain I fear will become some sort of police prescription for people with mental illness who are better served with alternative means of communication and apprehension.
Exposing an individual who is displaying mental illness; a health issue or even disability to an electrified incapacitation has yet to be documented as safe or ethical. If we are applying volts to a medical condition what specifically is officer training in its application to mental health. They don’t let the custodian administer Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) in a hospital but we will have police trained mainly in enforcement doing something similar and without anesthetic.
There are no reports specifically addressing the mental health effects of Tasers. I can think of no better indicator of disregard for mental health than to market and procure a product which has not been proven safe as applied to individuals with mental illness. In a study of 184 Taser related deaths 19 percent were people with mental illness or as they say one in five. Why are the one in five overlooked regarding the safety and efficacy of Taser use?
Tasers may contribute to an already high level of arousal in agitated individuals and thus death. It should be brought to the chief’s attention that people taking prescribed anti-psychotic medications are already at increased risk of sudden cardiac death. I would like to know what protocol is in place to ensure the use of a Taser in the case of mental health matters is considered a potentially lethal intervention. There are individuals who should be considered dangerously susceptible to the adverse effects of Taser use and who are at risk of death.
There is no information on the long or short term effects of Taser use on individuals who have bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia or any mental health disorder. The Taser is a product being used on the public and as such should be conclusively proven to be of little to no risk to all individuals in society but specifically for those who are compromised by illness and vulnerable to police interaction. These individuals are disabled in many cases. Taser International should answer for the oversight but also Chief Brad Duncan. Having such a keen eye for mental health matters I am surprised he so readily embraces a means of enforcement that has no footing in science with respect to its application in mental health matters.
The effects of Taser use on the mentally ill will hopefully never be known as it would be unethical to discover and counterproductive to a civilized and compassionate society. To assume harmlessness on the basis of self use is being callous to the experiences and suffering of those who experience or are touched by mental illness. When the police are involved in a mental health call, enforcement needs to mesh with medicine. To not consider or study the traumatizing effects of Taser use on mental illness is stigma.
It needs to be considered that the use of Tasers is the worst intervention for those with mental health needs. We would assume as much if it were epilepsy or diabetes. The Taser has been attributed to deaths and increasing its availability will increase its use which in turn increases the likelihood of tragedy by a percentage similar to its proliferation.
I don’t see a request for funds to increase officer training and education in mental health but the chief needs 350 000 dollars for the purchase of a product which has not been studied let alone proven to be harmless to individuals suffering from mental illness. The chief himself has pointed out the ballooning mental health scenarios police are involved in. To increase the presence of Tasers on such contacts creates a health concern for some of London’s most vulnerable citizens.
The chief may not be unbiased in the implementation of Tasers as his perspective is enforcement rather than medical and he is charged with keeping his officers safe. Are we increasing officer safety while decreasing public safety or at least the safety of a vulnerable segment of our community? I can understand that the Taser is a means of gaining compliance and would possibly mean deploying fewer officers but should it be over someone’s dead body?
The chief also overlooks that the use of Tasers in mental health emergencies has a negative impact on subsequent engagement with mental healthcare. It increases the perception of coercion. Consider the likelihood of seeking assistance after being traumatized by a Taser. These are patients we are processing not criminals we are dissuading.
The use of police services can exacerbate the difficult life circumstances facing people with mental illness and their families. Do we sincerely wish to expose these individuals to Taser use? It becomes difficult to dismantle stigma when we are witness to law enforcement over involved in mental health care. When we use the police we expose those who suffer from mental illness to enforcement practices rather than best practices.
People with mental illness on average have three to five times more contacts per year with police. They are two to three times more likely to be charged and four to six times more likely to be arrested. Being charged and arrested at a rate that is disproportionate to the general population leads to a disproportionate susceptibility to Taser use. I’m sure the chief of police would agree that an increase of 370 percent of any weapon would make an impact on incidents of use.
If the police are going to apply 50 000 volts to mental illness it should be investigated to truly understand its dangers and effects both long term and short term. If the chief is as concerned about mental health as he claims he owes it to Londoners to do everything he can to have officers reaching for skills rather than weapons no matter how innocuous he claims they are.
Chief Brad Duncan used the words that need to be budgeted for: de-escalation, dialogue and communication. If we arm officers with these tools of enforcement we wouldn’t need more Tasers.
According to the chief, police respond to behaviour and agitation is used as an indicator for Taser use. People with mental illness have a higher probability of displaying behaviours which create an interaction with police. When these behaviours are symptoms of a health concern the police must be mindful of their actions worsening an individual’s health or contributing culpably or not in the death of an ill person. As police were it your brother hearing voices, confused, scared, agitated would you be as comfortable with applying those volts?
In reference to policing and mental health the chief said we are “spending a lot of dollars not well” $350 thousand to be precise.
Another excellent article, Brett. I hope it will be seen by law enforcement people everywhere. It should be sent to all the main Canadian newspapers. Keep writing! Vina
Thanks Vina. It appears mental health was overlooked in the safety and efficacy of implementing Tasers for Ontarians.