(Photo credit: Maclean’s Magazine, David Lam | Constable Ken Lam [left] with his father)
After the horrific attack in Toronto that left ten innocent victims dead, there was an outpouring of grief from all corners of the country, unified on social media through the #TorontoStrong hashtag. Trailing quickly behind was praise for Constable Ken Lam, of the Toronto Police Department, the “officer who didn’t shoot,” who, rather than deploy lethal force, talked the suspect down and facilitated a safe arrest.
Refraining from firing his gun led to the best possible outcome, and Constable Lam should be praised for his measured approach where he de-escalated a situation that could have very easily ended in one more life lost. He did it right: turning off his siren and lights and using his communication skills instead of lethal force. Credit should be given to the individual officer, but should not extend to the force he represents.
Effusive praise of the police obscures the reality that there are many instances where officers kill, resorting to violence over words and relying on fear over reason—in effect, doing the exact opposite of what Constable Lam did along Yonge Street earlier in April. His actions should be the norm, not the exception, and police departments across Canada have much work to do in order to make that a reality.
By contrast, this example of good policing underscores the repeated failures of so many officers to approach situations like Constable Lam—and there are many.
Perhaps the most egregious example of police violence in recent years played out in Toronto’s west end in 2013: Constable James Forcillo shot and killed 18-year-old Sammy Yatim while he was on a streetcar. The officer fired nine times. As described by the Toronto Star, “Yatim died in a barrage of Forcillo’s bullets… Within less than a minute of arriving on scene... He first fired three bullets, including the fatal shot to Yatim’s heart, then fired six more as Yatim lay on the floor of the streetcar, paralyzed and dying.”
(Photo credit: Canadian Press, Toronto Star, Facebook | James Forcillo and Sammy Yatim)
This approach lies in such stark contrast to how Constable Lam talked a distraught suspect down, even backing away as he approached the officer to buy himself more time. This is what could have happened in the case of Tony Du. And if it did, he would likely still be alive today to spend time with a loving family and care for his elderly mother, as he was doing at the time of his death.
In November of 2014 Tony Du, 51, was shot and killed by Constable Andrew Peters, of the Vancouver Police Department, “within minutes” of the officer and his partner arriving on scene. Du, described as a “gentle giant” by a pre-eminent psychiatric expert, was suffering a mental health episode at the time. He did not have the good fortune of being met by a calm, level-headed officer adept at de-escalating the situation appropriately. Instead, he was shot and killed.
(Photo credit: Peter Kim | Memorial for Tony Du at a rally after coroner's inquest | February 2018)
Pivot represented the family of Tony Du at a recent coroner’s inquest into his death. Out of that painful process the disturbing facts around police violence were laid bare, and the jury released 29 recommendations to ensure tragedies like this—fueled by inadequate policing (and police)—never happen again.
Improving police accountability
The cases of police brutality against the Black community in North America are well documented and too numeous to list. The shooting of Pierre Coriolan, a 58-year-old man killed by Montreal police, is just one such example—a disturbing one indicative of how police so often engage communities of colour.
(Warning: graphic video, please exercise discretion)
Coriolan was shot and killed in the hallway just outside his apartment in the summer of 2017. He was described as a “loving and lovable man,” and even a former RCMP officer was incredulous after watching the video of his police encounter. "The first question I asked myself is, 'Why don't you take the time?' There's no rush," Will Prosper told the CBC.
The only thing Pierre was threatening was his own apartment. He was not a threat to anybody else.” (Will Prosper, Former RCMP officer speaking to CBC)
The many examples of police violence point to systemic issues penetrating deeper than training alone. When viewed against the backdrop of Constable Lam’s engagement of the suspect in the Toronto attack, they are reminders that it takes the right “type” of person to handle a situation without lethal force, and a significant change in police culture to encourage communication and elements of procedural justice—such as respect, dignity, and collaborative resolution—over force.
That is to say, there are inherent qualities and dispositions that make individuals good officers, more adept at de-escalating with words rather than resorting to lethal bullets. These are qualities that must be valued and actively sought out by police forces. Policing is far too complex and nuanced to be reduced to the narrow “catch the bad guy” parameters so many young recruits entering the force recognize.
(Photo credit: Peter Kim | Pivot Legal Policing Policy Consultant Camia Weaver speaking to media at coroner’s inquest | February 2018)
During the coroner’s inquest into the death of Tony Du, with almost disrespectful self-aggrandizement, the Vancouver Police touted the robustness of their mental health strategy and training protocols around mental health distress. But only recently did we learn that a joint VPD program to provide support to police officers in their encounters with individuals in mental distress was used only 11 times since it first began three years ago. The plan cost $370,000.
We also strongly believe that police officers, whose uniforms and presence alone can escalate someone in mental health distress, should not be the frontline response in such situations (though this may be unavoidable in some circumstances). In those cases, specialised officers selected for their innate characteristics and skills, highly trained in crisis de-escalation, and with regular ongoing experience in this area are the best option for safe and effective outcomes. Officers such as Ken Lam and RCMP constable Stanbury, who alone effectively resolved a crisis situation with Tony Du just months before he was shot and killed by VPD constable Peters, appear to have these characteristics and skills.
Police in North America are charged with an immense responsibility to uphold law and order in society, which necessarily involves working with a complex range of psycho-social and economic factors that must inform how policing is conducted. To meet this challenge, we need officers who are level-headed, measured, and compassionate; but so often police forces seem to attract and promote those exhibiting the opposite. We need a wholesale change in police culture that promotes communication and resolution to achieve objectives, and demotes the use of force except as an absolute last resort. Otherwise we will continue to have fatal outcomes that not only ruin families, but also destroy trust in an important institution.
Policing policies and practices come into every aspect of our ongoing work with marginalized communities. Though it’s a highly complex issue, the heart of Pivot’s policing campaign is to ensure racialized communities and those experiencing a mental health crisis aren’t injured or killed by police. You can help us hold police accountable by making a gift today. Join us in using the law to push for life-saving policing reform.