De-Escalation Training: “A Matter of Life and Death” says Ontario’s Ombudsman

People in crisis die at the hands of police officers too often and it’s not because those officers don’t follow the rules. “It’s because they do,” concluded Ontario’s ombudsman Paul Dubé after a three year long investigation.

In a 90-page report released on Wednesday, Dubé asserted that many deaths could be avoided if Ontario’s officers were taught when and how to de-escalate situations instead of drawing their weapons. He urged the provincial government to use its “legal and moral authority” and take action.

“We don’t need another study that too many people in crisis died at the hands of police,” Dubé declared while presenting his report in Queen’s Park on Wednesday, “we don’t need another study or consultation to determine that police training on de-escalation is inadequate. What we need is recognition by the government that the status quo is unacceptable.”

The document, called A Matter of Life and Death, includes 22 recommendations mostly focused on changing police culture and reshaping training.

sammy yatim
Sammy Yatim (image: YouTube)

The ombudsman’s investigation was prompted by the highly publicized 2013 case of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, the Toronto teenager who was yielding a knife in an empty streetcar when police officer James Forcillo shot him eight times. Last January, the court ruled that Constable Forcillo did not break the law by firing the first three shots that incapacitated and probably fatally wounded Yatim. Firing six more bullets on a clearly incapacitated person, however, was ruled attempted murder.

Yatim’s parents are convinced their son would be alive if Forcillo had chosen to use his words instead of his gun. After the judgement, his mother told the press: “I believe if Forcillo asked my son, ‘What is your name?’ — just this question — he will not shoot him, he will calm him.”

A claim now supported by Dubé’s findings.

“Ontario officers have plenty of training on how to use their guns, but not enough on how to use their mouths,” said the ombudsman during Wednesday’s speech. “The majority of their training focuses on exerting authority and establishing control over armed or hostile subjects, principally by drawing their weapons and yelling commands.”

Nineteen more people were killed by Ontario police forces since then. Dubé underlined that many of them were in crisis.

According to the documentary Hold Your Fire, although the number of people killed by police remained fairly constant during the last decade, the proportion of mentally ill persons among them is growing alarmingly. They estimated that currently 40% of people killed in police actions across Canada are mentally ill.

The Very Blurry Bigger Picture

The lack of reliable data makes it very difficult to compare Ontario’s situation with the rest of the country. There are no official records of civilian deaths during police interventions at the federal level and provincial statistics are rare. In fact, citizens and media are left to rely on civil organisations to keep track of police shootings.

CRAP (French acronym for Coalition Against Police Repression and Abuse) keeps a non-extensive record of civilian deaths at the hands of police. In the three years since Yatim’s death, it recorded 18 cases in Ontario (compared to the 19 mentioned in Dubé’s report) and 17 in Quebec. Dubé deplored that Ontario’s mandatory police training lasted only 12 weeks, less than anywhere else in the country. Quebec’s only lasts 15 (although it should be noted that, in both cases, a majority of applicants have also completed a collegial diploma in general police work).

Quebec’s police dealings with people in crisis has also been criticized, notably in the Alain Magloire case in 2014. Last March, the coroner, while refraining from outright blaming the police officers, critiqued their communication among themselves as well as with Magloire and recommended added training for intervening with mentally ill people.

Alain Magloire (image: Facebook)
Alain Magloire (image: Facebook)

Since 2013, the Montreal police department (SPVM) has around 223 officers specially trained to handle people in crisis. “Why not all of them?” suggested the coroner.

A commission investigating the handling of the 2012 student protests in Quebec also blamed police culture for favouring repressive tactics and unnecessary use of weapons.

Piecing together the information paints a worrying picture, albeit an incomplete one. Above all, it underlines the importance of keeping reliable and comprehensive records.

There is no valid excuse for the number of police killings in Canada to be further than a Google search away.

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