No police officer ever comes to work hoping that they will have to point their gun at someone and fire. Nor are they eager to use a less deadly form of force such as a Taser or baton. No police officer wants to end anyone’s life. When a death or serious injury happens, we deeply regret the loss of life and feel compassion for those who die, their family and their friends. We feel no less compassion for the police officers involved who are devastated and will relive these moments the rest of their lives.
Every day, police officers fulfill their goal of resolving countless violent and dangerous situations without force or with minimal force. We are trained to de-escalate volatile situations and use force only when persuasion and dialogue are going to be ineffective. The research shows that police officers resolve the vast majority of public contacts (more than 99 per cent) with just using dialogue and persuasion. The use of physical force (takedowns, strikes and stuns etc.) occurs less than 1 per cent of the time, when police officers are faced with resistive or assaultive behavior An even smaller percentage of contact requires the use of a Taser, baton or pepper spray, and an ever smaller number of situations require the use of deadly force to prevent grievous bodily harm or death.
Officers are trained to de-escalate volatile situations by using tactics such as active listening; calm tone of voice, pitch, modulation, and body language; and persuasion and empathy. They also have to be aware of the dynamics of violent encounters and how quickly (measured in seconds) a subject can change his or her threatening behavior into actual violence directed towards the public or sometimes the police themselves.
Deadly force can only be used to protect against death or grievous harm and when no less violent means are available. And when deadly force is used, there is great concern from all involved – and so there should be. The police officer’s actions – often decided in a split second in a dynamic, chaotic, and high-pressure setting – will immediately be scrutinized by the families, witnesses, the media and the public. Unfortunately, most opinions will be formed before the full facts are known.
It is important to remember that police officers are among the most accountable professionals in Canada. There are a multitude of internal and external investigative and oversight processes in addition to the potential for criminal prosecution and civil action. If the public wants even more oversight, then let’s have it. In the meantime, we need to allow these multiple layers of investigation and independent oversight to unfold.
The job faced by police officers is daunting. Officers always need to justify their decision to use force and, if they act in bad faith, they will be held accountable. But in recognizing the difficult job police officers face, the standard of performance required by the courts is for police officers to meet a “reasonable action” test, not “perfection determined with 20-20 hindsight.”
What I would ask people to remember as they form opinions in the wake of an emotional incident is that we are all members of the same community. We are your neighbours, your customers and your friends. As part of that community I am grateful, as I’m sure you are, that every day police officers put their own safety on the line in violent and chaotic situations to protect others. Unfortunately, when a death or serious injury occurs in the process, even after an exhaustive review or court process, seldom is there full agreement on whether the force used was reasonable. Furthermore, the recommendations to prevent such tragedies can be incompatible. The recent Toronto shooting has led to many calling for Tasers to be issued to every officer. After the death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver Airport, many called for Tasers to be banned outright.
There are those who ask us not to rush too quickly to use deadly force but to weigh all our options carefully and thoughtfully. It is a sound request. But when those options are exhausted and an officer has to make a decision that will stay with them the rest of their lives, I would ask that we wait for all the facts to emerge and not rush too quickly to judgment.
Jim Chu is chief constable with the Vancouver Police Department and president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police