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Police use of force and a promising investigation

Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin announces that he will be launching an investigation into what direction is provided to police by Ontario's Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services with respect to de-escalating conflict situations during a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Thursday, August 8, 2013. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

Matthew Sherwood/Matthew Sherwood for The Globe a

The decision by André Marin, the Ombudsman of Ontario, to investigate the provincial government's guidelines on police use of force is welcome news. The investigation will not conflict with any other and can only serve to shed more light on an issue that is of growing concern to the public.

The issue is the use of deadly police force against the mentally ill or someone who may be in the throes of a personal crisis. The death of Sammy Yatim in Toronto last month was a tipping point. The 18-year-old teenager, who had no history of violence, died after a police fired nine shots at him while he was alone on a streetcar, wielding a knife and yelling at police officers who had their guns raised in his direction. The incident was captured on multiple video recordings, and it left many people concerned and angry over how quickly the police drew their weapons and why so many shots were fired.

The province's Special Investigations Unit will decide whether the officer who fired his weapons was legally justified in doing so. As well, Toronto's chief of police, William Blair, has vowed to hold an internal review of department procedures. Neither of those investigations, however, will examine the use-of-force guidelines that are the basis of police training in Canada.

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The Ombudsman's investigation will thus fill a needed gap. Police officers in Canada follow a use-of-force model that is designed to teach them to assess a situation and choose the path of engagement that will result in the least harm being done. At the same time, officers are trained to use their side arms the instant they feel a suspect is threatening their own safety.

According to a report prepared by a member of the Calgary Police Service, officers trained under the use-of-force model are supposed to assess the behaviour of a suspect and other situational factors, and then "marry these factors with their understanding of case law and societal expectations to formulate a considered analysis of the risk." But too often, said the report, officers ignore the situational factors and "select a response based only upon the linear relationship to subject behaviour."

Given that the provincial government is responsible for the Ontario Police College and the Ontario Provincial Police Academy, and thus for the basic training of police officers, it makes perfect sense for the Ombudsman to ask questions in the wake of the Sammy Yatim shooting.

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