David Butt is a Toronto-based criminal lawyer.
A young black man in Ferguson, Missouri is shot at least six times, twice in the head, by a police officer. The town is promptly enveloped in a swirling toxic haze of tear gas, anguish, and rage. Confusing press conferences instil no sense of confidence in the leadership, and then comes the widespread, heavy-handed suppression of democratic rights through the imposition of a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The strong impression created is that those in charge are lurching through this crisis without the ghost of a plan.
That is no way to run the aftermath of such a foreboding tragedy. And it provides the opportunity for a stark, yet highly complimentary, comparison with how things work in Canada in similar circumstances.
Fatal police shootings pose a strong challenge to social order. And obviously problematic shootings such as the one in Ferguson pose an even stronger challenge. Such shootings are always deeply tragic, but the tragedy is compounded, complicated and heavily politicized by widespread public feelings of betrayal by police who are supposed to serve and protect. Police shootings therefore raise crucial questions about how we have consented, or not consented, to be governed, and they do so when emotions are legitimately heated to the boiling point. In other words, police shootings are a near-perfect recipe for widespread public uprising.
Canada has suffered through its own police shootings. And while none are any less tragic than police shootings elsewhere, by comparison with the chaos in Ferguson, we weather them amazingly well. Why is this so? Many reasons no doubt. But as a lawyer working the front lines of the fallout from these difficult events, I feel that a great deal of credit must go to independent investigative agencies in various provinces – agencies such as Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, or SIU, along with the police services and police associations involved in these crises, who work in close co-operation.
Crisis management requires, to state the obvious, management. In the context of a police shooting that can so quickly bubble over into wider public unrest, effective management means having a comprehensive response, and implementing it swiftly, calmly, professionally and fairly. That is exactly what the SIU investigative protocol, and similar protocols in other provinces, provide. Roles and responsibilities are well defined and well designed. Everyone from the lowliest constable to the SIU director knows just what to do the minute one of these terrible tragedies occurs, and everyone calmly goes about their jobs.
After a shooting, the involved police service immediately notifies the SIU, and the SIU attends rapidly, in the middle of the night if necessary. Police services co-operate in securing the scene until the SIU arrives, and on the SIU’s arrival hand over the scene without hesitation. The SIU is a civilian body, with a reputation for independence assiduously developed and maintained. So right away the media inform their audience that familiar independent professionals have taken charge.
The investigation begins right away. All involved officers are segregated to prevent cross-contamination of their evidence that might occur if they shared among themselves their recollections of the events. All involved officers, with the sole exception of the shooter(s) who have a right to remain silent, must provide their duty-book notes of the incident to the SIU, and submit to mandatory SIU interviews within 24 hours of a request. The onus on officers to co-operate with the SIU is heavy, especially right after such traumatic events. But fair play is the order of the day, and the officers’ interests are protected by police associations providing liberal access to highly experienced lawyers before, during and after their SIU interviews.
The SIU investigative protocol took years to refine, and delicately balances competing interests. It is constantly tweaked for improvement, and other provinces have adapted or are adapting and deploying the SIU model. At its present highly developed state, the SIU model compares well to resuscitation protocols in a hospital. In both situations the stakes are extremely high, and rapid, effective execution is necessary. And in both situations a team of professionals swiftly comes together with a common purpose to execute the roles for which they have been highly trained. So the civilians caught up in both these situations will of course still feel highly anxious, but they also stand reassured that what can be done is being done, by those who know what they are doing, and who take professional pride in doing it right.
Does that sound like the situation in Ferguson this past week? Not a bit. The sad events in the St. Louis suburb give us the opportunity to ponder how we do things differently, and to realize how comparatively well things work here. Developing and executing investigative protocols among multiple stakeholders with different agendas, and constantly refining those protocols based on multi-party input, is tedious, technical stuff. But that tedious technical stuff helps prevent the social upheaval Ferguson is now suffering through. So we should all be immensely grateful it is quietly done here at home by police services, police associations, and independent agencies like the SIU.