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Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair speaks to reporters about former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci's report on the use of lethal force by Toronto Police during a press conference in Toronto on Thursday, July 24, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair speaks to reporters about former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci's report on the use of lethal force by Toronto Police during a press conference in Toronto on Thursday, July 24, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Are the police soldiers or social workers? Add to ...

In 2013, a mere 44 Toronto police officers fired their guns, in 33 separate incidents. In two-thirds of those incidents, police weren’t firing at a person – they were aiming at an animal. There were two instances of guns being fired at an “aggressive animal” and 19 involving “injured/suffering animals.” There were only 11 cases – less than one per month – of police shooting at an armed person. And only five of those suspects were carrying guns; the rest had an “edged weapon” like a knife, or some “other object.”

The year before, in 2012, police discharged their weapons in only 23 incidents – 19 involving animals. In 2011, there were 35 incidents where police used their guns; 22 of those involved a wounded animal.

In other words, police in Canada’s largest city almost never fire their guns. The vast majority of Toronto’s more than 5,000 uniformed cops will go through an entire career without ever pulling the trigger. The few called on to fire are most likely to be putting down a suffering animal, not bringing down gun-toting criminals.

This is extremely good news. Toronto police, like most of their counterparts across Canada, work in a community with relatively low crime rates and in particular low rates of violent crime. The data also raises some interesting questions – such as whether the current policing model is suited to a society in which the need for lethal force is, though not unknown, exceptionally rare. The reality is that the average uniformed Canadian police officer is mostly called on to be a social worker with law-enforcement powers. Are officers properly trained to that job?

On Thursday, former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci released his review of the use-of-force practices of Toronto police, particularly when dealing with “people who are or may be emotionally disturbed, mentally disturbed or cognitively impaired.” Mr. Iacobucci says that the goal should be “zero deaths when police interact with the public.” That’s probably impossible – there will always be rare cases when police have no choice but to draw weapons and fire – but it’s the right goal to aim for. Mr. Iacobucci’s overarching theme is that everything in police training, procedures and practices should aim to figure out how to de-escalate situations, and find solutions other than lethal force.

There have been several incidents over the past few years of police killing people who were, to use Mr. Iacobucci’s term, “in crisis.” The commissioning of this report was sparked by the shooting death last July of Sammy Yatim. Mr. Yatim brandished a knife on a streetcar, causing passengers to flee. Police arrived and later fired shots; Mr. Yatim was alone on the streetcar by that time. Constable James Forcillo has been charged with second-degree murder.

Mr. Iacobucci recommends that police change their thinking on the use of force. Training should emphasize that, in situations involving troubled people, police “are usually required to play a helping role, not an enforcement role.” Exactly right. Many of Mr. Iacobucci’s ideas would help the police more successfully and humanely deal with all people, in mental distress or not.

The report bulges with 84 recommendations, many containing dozens of subclauses. Some are good, such as a call for a greater emphasis on conflict de-escalation, and for the police to hire more recruits educated in fields such as nursing and social work.

Some recommendations are excellent, such as calling for front-line police officers to be fitted with tiny, body-mounted video cameras, which clip on to officers’ lapels. Several Canadian police forces are already testing them. The effect should be similar to cameras mounted inside patrol cars and police stations. The idea is to protect the police against false accusations and the public against abuse. Many incidents of wrongdoing – think of the death of Robert Dziekanski, a classic case of someone who needed help – only came to light because citizens made video recordings. All the better if police cameras are also policing the police.

Mr. Iacobucci has also called for more officers to be armed with tasers. We’re not sure he’s right. If the goal is to get police to step back, slow down and de-escalate, is giving police a dangerous but less lethal weapon the right response?

Mr. Iacobucci’s report is mostly about a long list of additional things he believes police should be doing. We wish he’d also considered recommending that police sometimes do less. How about a pilot program to see what policing would be like not with more weapons, but fewer?

What would happen if, as in the United Kingdom, most regular police officers didn’t have guns? As the statistics show, police rarely need to use them. If the police who encountered Sammy Yatim had not been armed, how would things have gone down? What if a gun was – like a taser for Toronto police today – a special weapon that had to be specially called in for exceptional situations? It would be a good thing if a Canadian police force were to ask the question, and launch a pilot program to arrive at an answer.

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