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Toronto Coroner’s inquest into Andrew Loku shooting won’t fix policing problems

Holding a photo of Andrew Loku, Cecil Peter speaks out against carding during a public consultation on street checks hosted by Yasir Naqvi, the provincial Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Loku was shot by Toronto police and died from his injuries.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A coroner's inquest into the police shooting of Andrew Loku is expected to shed light on the patchy and contradictory accounts of the mentally ill black man's death last summer. But activists looking for those revelations to produce radical new recommendations on police conduct may be disappointed.

"There have been millions of them," says former mayor and long-time police critic John Sewell, speaking figuratively of the list of coroner's inquests into police shootings that go back decades. "They all say the same things."

The recommendations coroner's juries have repeatedly made in these cases – including more "de-escalation" training for police – are also things Toronto Police insist they are doing, although critics say they must do much more. Coroner's juries cannot lay blame, and are made up of everyday people without any expertise, Mr. Sewell points out, making them less-than-ideal to come up with sweeping changes to policing.

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Mr. Sewell, who runs the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition and clashed with the force over the shooting of a black man when he was mayor back in 1979, says the province should set up an expert review committee for all deaths caused by police or jail guards, similar to one now in place that reviews the deaths of all children under 5. Such a panel would be able to make more detailed and useful recommendations than a coroner's inquest, he argues.

There is no question that we have been here before. A coroner's jury looking into the police shooting of Ian Pryce, a black man who lived with schizophrenia and was killed while brandishing a pellet gun, just delivered recommendations this week.

Just two years ago, three coroner's inquests into police shootings of mentally ill people brandishing knives or other "edged weapons" made 53 recommendations. Among them were suggestions to assess the de-escalation training police now receive, and to re-emphasize the idea that officers should "stop shouting" commands if someone is not complying and instead try "defusing communication strategies."

Former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci also produced a 300-page report after Constable James Forcillo shot and killed teenager Sammy Yatim in 2013. Police say they are implementing most of those recommendations, too.

One recurring suggestion in coroner's inquests is that police be given more access to "non-lethal" weapons, such as tasers. After controversy about the dangers and potential overuse of tasers, the Toronto Police Services Board limited their use to sergeants. The force is now rolling out new "sock guns" that are meant to stun but not kill.

Another is the expansion of Toronto's "mobile crisis intervention teams," which consist of a plainclothes officer and a mental health nurse. These units are now only allowed to respond after regular officers have arrived to contain any violent threat, only work in certain parts of the city and are not available 24 hours a day.

Coroner James Edwards says protests by Black Lives Matter were one factor prompting him to call the inquest into Mr. Loku's death, although he acknowledged most police shootings are subject to inquests. He also said the group or another community organizations, could be allowed to seek legal standing at an inquest if the scope includes racial issues.

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Recommendations on race would not be new, however. A coroner's inquest of a 2004 police shooting of a black man with a knife in Edwards Gardens included race in its scope and recommended more training on "racial diversity."

In the end, this inquest's key goal will clearly be a public accounting of how Mr. Loku, who reportedly was confronting a neighbour about noise and gripping a hammer, ended up dead in his apartment hallway. As is typical, the Special Investigations Unit report clearing the officers involved has not been released, although Premier Kathleen Wynne said this week she wants the information made public. The officers will be forced to testify at the inquest.

Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash says police welcome any new recommendations that might come out of an inquest. But he stressed that officers defuse the vast majority of potentially violent situations they face, thousands of calls each year, without firing a shot: "Every day in this city, police officers resolve situations where people are in mental health crises. There are resolved with patience and de-escalation."

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