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We should be focusing on community policing, not weapons, writes Daniel Bear

As police forces across North America face increased scrutiny in the wake of numerous high-profile fatal shootings, Toronto Police have pushed for more officer training and adopted a "less-lethal" weapon that they hope will help to de-escalate dangerous situations. The so-called sock gun shoots Kevlar-wrapped projectiles meant to immobilize a suspect.

Police were urged to invest in non-lethal options in a use-of-force review by retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci after the shooting death of Sammy Yatim, 18, in 2013. Constable James Forcillo was convicted of attempted murder in the shooting, which was caught on video. This week, Toronto Police killed another young man, Alex Wettlaufer, 21, who was a friend of Mr. Yatim. The shooting occurred after a fight allegedly involving a gun was reported at a subway station. It is being probed by the Special Investigations Unit

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders aims one of the department's new converted shotguns that shoot beanbag projectiles.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders aims one of the department’s new converted shotguns that shoot beanbag projectiles.

Toronto Police photo

No person viewing video of the shooting death of Sammy Yatim on a streetcar would hesitate if given the opportunity to magically replace Constable James Forcillo's handgun with one of the Toronto Police Service's newly acquired beanbag-shooting shotguns.

Such a switch might have saved Mr. Yatim's life, Constable Forcillo's career and whatever amount of the community's trust and confidence in police that was lost that night in 2013.

But in even acknowledging that less-lethal weapons may be preferable in specific situations, we must ask ourselves if the continued expansion of those options supports our larger goals for what policing should be in the modern Canadian context.

Over the past few years, police forces in several cities, the RCMP and Corrections Canada have adopted new less-lethal weapons that fire projectiles meant to disable rather than kill. They are intended for two primary situations: non-compliant individuals and crowd control.

Recently, Toronto Police added blaze-orange shotguns designed to shoot a "super sock round." Like the tasers already used by the force, the sock guns are deemed less lethal, but both beanbags and tasers have killed and maimed before. The primary argument for adding the shotguns is that they provide officers a longer-range option when faced with situations that are dangerous but do not involve an imminent threat to life or grievous bodily harm.

Concerns about police use of force are nothing new. At the heart of policing's relationship to society is the ability of officers to employ various levels of non-negotiable coercive force. We have spent much of the 20th century telling the police that we want them to maintain order, not just enforce the law, and to do so by responding once trouble has started. This required certain non-lethal tools and capabilities to quell incidents. The question is, do less-lethal weapons actively improve the community's confidence in the police?

Less-lethal weapons are frequently used on individuals in severe emotional, mental or substance-related crisis. In 2013, 40 per cent of incidents in which a taser was used involved such a person.

Frequent engagement in "crisis interventions" by the police is not simply a matter of choice. As first responders, officers are significantly affected by the lack of a cohesive community-based mental-health-care system, according to a 2014 independent review of such encounters.

We know from research that de-escalation is preferable to incapacitation. In response to this, the Toronto Police Service has increased the amount of annual training on de-escalation tactics and has incorporated "mobile crisis intervention teams" that pair psychiatric nurses and officers to respond to emergencies involving people in crisis.

The Ontario Mobilization and Engagement Model of Community Policing, developed by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police and endorsed by the provincial government, is reflective of the changes to policing happening across Europe and North America. The model focuses not just on the officer's ability to respond to crime, but to be part of larger community-wide efforts to reduce the social antecedents of crime, mobilize communities' support mechanisms and engage in crime-prevention measures.

In short, it asks the police to be partners in problem-solving, while retaining a core capability to respond armed in those rare situations where coercive force is needed.

One of the major structural changes this entails is changing how police performance is measured. In the old model of policing, the success of officers was measured by their record of arrests or searches. Community policing focuses more on outcomes, including residents' confidence in police and fear of crime.

Turning police services on to this new course is no easy feat after decades of telling them that their mission was to combat crime, and clear direction needs to flow unambiguously from police leaders.

There is little doubt that less-lethal weapons can do good if used properly. But what message are we sending to the police and communities when on the one hand we're telling them to forge partnerships and other the other hand issuing less-lethal shotguns and very lethal carbines.

Greater good can be achieved by looking past armament options and focusing on fully embracing community policing. Such singularity in focus would help all communities connect with the police and ensure that the legitimacy to use force is retained for those rare instances when it is warranted.

Additionally, the partnerships inherent in community policing would ensure that we support people before they are in crisis and that we respond effectively if pre-emptive efforts fall short.

We ask a lot of police officers in our society; we should not put the burden of mental-health care on them or ask them to have to decide to use force because we did not take the time or supply the money to properly support individuals before they reach a state of crisis. If we successfully do this, we can reduce use-of-force incidents of all kinds that erode community confidence in the police.

The sock gun is probably not a bad item to have with you if you are an officer, but it represents a tool for an old approach to policing.

If you still feel that an additional weapon is necessary, consider a classroom exercise I run with students, many of whom will be applying to police services after leaving school:

Create a list of all the tools that officers might bring with them into the field. You'll probably identify a firearm, radio, notepad, handcuffs, baton, bulletproof vest and various other items needed to respond to crime. Now extend the list with all the skills or qualities you think officers need to be effective in their day-to-day role. Interpersonal communication tops my list, but you'll probably also add things such as leadership, empathy, courage, a sense of ethics, critical thinking, strong memory and decisiveness. Now rank all the items you've written down by their importance.

When I run this exercise with my students, the top items are always skills, not objects.

Daniel Bear is a professor of criminal justice at Humber College's School of Social and Community Services. He has a PhD in social policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and his research focuses on how police engage in community policing and drugs policing.

What is it?

The "less-lethal sock round," designed to be used in a specially retrofitted 12-gauge shotgun, contains a white, cotton-woven beanbag Kevlar projectile. It looks a little like a balled-up sock, hence the name. The shell is bright orange and labelled "super sock round."

How fast does the sock go?

According to Toronto Police, the projectile travels at 270 feet (82.3 metres) per second and can be shot from up to about 60 feet (18.3 metres) away. In contrast, tasers can be used reliably from only about 25 to 35 feet (7.6 to 10.7 metres) away.

A standard one-ounce slug from a 12-gauge shotgun travels at 1,700 to 1,800 feet (518 to 548.6 metres) per second, and can cause significant physical harm from up to 150 feet (45.7 metres) away.

The sock flattens against the target on impact, inflicting pain over a larger area and causing motor dysfunction (almost like a muscle spasm) and bruising, but does not break the skin.

A beanbag projectile used in a modified shotgun can be fired accurately from up to 18 metres away.

A beanbag projectile used in a modified shotgun can be fired accurately from up to 18 metres away.

Toronto Police Services

Why is it being implemented?

Police want to use it to de-escalate situations where they are confronted with armed people who pose a danger to themselves or others. The sock gun is intended to subdue a person in distress without killing him.

The Toronto Police Service announced in September that less-lethal rounds would be deployed to front-line officers following a series of high-profile fatal shootings, including that of teenager Sammy Yatim.

This is the first time that front-line officers are being given a non-lethal option besides pepper spray or batons, according to TPS spokesman Mark Pugash. While officers can put in a request for a taser, there is a long waiting period because they are traditionally offered to sergeants and tactical officers.

How many sock guns are being brought in?

The TPS is retrofitting Remington 870 shotguns to be able to use the sock round, and 500 officers and members of the Emergency Task Force will be trained to use them. The sock shotguns, which will be coloured orange and labelled "less lethal," will be carried by three police vehicles in each of the 17 divisions, for a total of 51 guns.

Where else is the sock round used?

The sock round was introduced in the United States in 1971, after president Lyndon Johnson appointed a blue-ribbon committee to study the administration of justice in the wake of protests during the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War.

One of the important recommendations made by the committee was to develop non-lethal weapons. Today, sock guns are used by police in parts of Britain and United States, and are slowly being introduced to Canadian forces.

What are the dangers?

If shot from close range, less than 10 feet (three metres) away, there is a risk that the rounds may cause serious head injuries, broken ribs or organ damage.

A 2004 U.S. Department of Justice report showed that sock guns were discharged 373 times, leading to eight deaths. Other U.S. estimates show less-lethal weapons are responsible for an average of about one death a year. Mahnoor Yawar