Belleville council approves budget that includes ‘devil’s chair’

A file photo of an emergency restraint chair at Simpson Landing in Halifax, N.S. The chairs, which tie down a person’s arms and legs, are meant to be used on individuals who become a danger to themselves or others. (CBC)

A policing expert and a local advocacy group are raising concerns after the council in Belleville, Ont., has approved the purchase of a prisoner restraint chair — sometimes referred to as the “devil’s chair.”

The Belleville Peaceful Streets Network (BPSN), an advocacy group of concerned residents, were hoping councillors would reject the 2021 police budget until the item was removed. 

The restraint chairs, which tie down a person’s arms and legs, are meant to be used on individuals who become a danger to themselves or others.  

“Imagine being in police custody, being overwhelmed by anxiety or depression and then being strapped into a chair and losing any and all agency of your body,” said Britney Hope, a spokesperson for the group. 

“Nobody deserves that. But more importantly, experts believe it doesn’t help.”

Dozens of prisoners try to harm themselves: police

According to the 2021 capital budget, the Belleville Police Service reported 30 to 40 prisoners a year “attempting to kill themselves or cause themselves serious bodily harm by physically acting out of control.”

“Currently, there is no way officers can completely secure an out-of-control prisoner and we have had some serious injuries and prisoners needing to be transported to the hospital,” the budget reads, citing the price of the chair at under $2,800. 

Both Belleville Mayor Mitch Panciuk, and the chair of the police services board Jack Miller, declined to comment and referred CBC News to the Belleville Police Service. 

No one from the service responded to CBC’s multiple requests for an interview. 

The Belleville Peaceful Streets Network hoped councillors would reject the 2021 police budget until the item was removed. (Screenshot of Youtube livestream)

BPSN points to a 2015 study funded by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services in Ontario, which reviewed 614 legal motions and cases — the vast majority of which were in the United States – that involved the chair.

While the study approved the use of the chair, it found many issues stemmed from “inappropriate use.” 

Robert Gordon, a former police officer and Simon Fraser University criminology professor, says he was surprised to hear the police force was looking to buy the item, which he says is primarily for transporting a person. 

He said the chairs are more commonly used in health-care and correctional facilities. In those settings, the chairs are seen as a “necessary evil,” he said.

According to Gordon, the standard is set by the Correctional Service of Canada, which uses the chair minimally.

“These chairs should never be used as a form of punishment or as a threat of punishment.”

Key is proper training

Gordon said the key is to properly train officers to ensure the equipment isn’t misused or abused. 

Gordon said he’s not certain why the police service would need a restraint chair when officers can use handcuffs, another piece of equipment he thinks is often misused.

BPSN’s Hope said people should be concerned councillors at Tuesday’s meeting didn’t question why a restraint chair is a proper response to 30 to 40 people trying to harm themselves.

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