Alok Mukherjee, chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, says he’s open to the idea there is room for improvement in police training in light of the shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he said the board will wait for the results and findings of “different investigations that are happening” before deciding its course of action. On Thursday, Ontario Ombudsman André Marin announced that his office would be reviewing use-of-force protocols and other directives from the province’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. The death of Mr. Yatim, who was shot by police and then tasered on an empty streetcar after pulling a knife on passengers minutes before, is already being investigated by the Special Investigations Unit and Police Chief Bill Blair.
Dr. Mukherjee, who was named chair of the board in 2005 and whose term expires in 2015, said he is expecting a thorough review of the events, which have caused a public outcry about whether deadly force was justified. Explaining that the Toronto Police employ a national protocol regarding use of force, he said “lethal force should be used only when there’s no other option.”
Should police not be looking at their existing use-of-force protocols?
There’s a use-of-force model which requires police officers to use a variety of tools and techniques from verbal to use of a weapon. According to this national model, they should assess the situation and use appropriate tactics or tools in order that they don’t resort to the use of a lethal weapon right away.
If, as a result of various reviews and investigations, it is found that the training can be strengthened further that’s not a bad thing.
What’s the definition of what constitutes a threat?
The focus is on judgment and assessment of the situation: What danger is there to members of the public, and public safety, [whether] the safety of the police officer is threatened, the safety of the individual concerned, who may be in a crisis or threatened. So, there are various circumstances that police officers have to take into account in judging what level of force that they have to use.
Our police officers have thousands of interactions with members of the public in many different situations. They resolve a vast majority of them simply through communications and verbal interventions.
Would you say a person refusing to obey the command of a police officer is enough to deem this person threatening?
It is not just one factor. I can’t prejudge what the assessment may be in a given time and in a given situation. That’s why we have, in this case, a SIU investigation and review by the Chief of Police.
So, I am not saying just because someone refused to obey command of a police officer [that] is enough to use lethal force. I don’t think that’s how vast majority of officers make their decisions. They look for another way.
Do you have in the police ETF (Emergency Task Force) a team expert, psychiatric professionals who could, through their expertise, help de-escalate the situation when police may be dealing with mentally disturbed people?
What the police deal with is behaviour of emotionally disturbed persons. We don’t have psychiatrists on our staff. We have access to various resources that we can bring in depending on what’s needed in a given situation.
There was another situation in Montreal at the same time as the incident involving Mr. Yatim. That situation was successfully de-escalated through communications after several hours of standoff.
On balance, police use varieties of ways to defuse situations.
Should police not be looking at innovative solutions to avoid tragedies?
The Police Services and the Ministry, through their authorities to establish provincial standards, certainly do that.
The community is organizing another demonstration outside the police headquarters Tuesday when the Board will meet for its monthly meeting. What are your thoughts on this?
There’s a great deal of emotion in the community. There was a demonstration last week. I am aware that people have called for a second demonstration. We just have to wait and see. I believe the demonstration last week was a peaceful one and people wanted to express their anger over what happened and they also wanted to urge some improvements in police training etc. because they feel maybe there are some deficiencies.
As we said in our statement last week (first issued on July 30 and then corrected on August 6), the SIU investigation hopefully will be expeditious. Following that, the Chief of Police has to do a review of procedures, policies and training and conduct of individual officers and so on.
I guess the public has a right to express their concern and demonstration is one way of doing that. My hope will be that, like last week, the next demonstration will also be peaceful. The Board will still have to conduct its business. I have to make sure that we are able to conduct that business.
Are you going to discuss Sammy Yatim’s tragedy at the board meeting?
Not in any depth, as it will be premature. Also legally we can’t discuss this issue until the investigations and the reviews are completed. What I will be doing is to reiterate what we said in our statement, as well as to clarify what the law says about why we can’t make any pronouncement at this stage.
Anything you, as Chair of the Police Services Board, would like to tell the public?
I believe we need to continually look at every experience [to see] if there’s something that could be improved upon, done better. I also believe we do pretty good training for police officers but we have to keep an open mind.