Given how much of Canadians’ daily media diet is imported, and rooted in the culture and specific failings and grievances of our American neighbours, it’s often difficult for those of us living here to judge how much, or how little, of what’s happening there, and going wrong there, is representative of the way things are here.
Which brings us to the protests that have rocked the United States in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by police in Minneapolis, Minn.
Mr. Floyd was handcuffed, yet police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nine straight minutes as he begged for his life, lost consciousness and died. It was all caught on camera; Mr. Chauvin been charged with third-degree murder.
Now would be a very good time for Canadian police chiefs, and the elected officials who oversee them, to use this opportunity to prove to Canadians that our police forces are different from and better than those south of the border. Canadians should expect no less.
Canadian police chiefs could start by explaining whether their officers have been trained to never do what Mr. Chauvin did to Mr. Floyd.
If they haven’t been so trained, when does training start? And what punishment would an officer who so abused their power face?
Next, Canadian police chiefs need to explain how their officers are prepared to deal with people in mental distress, and to do so in ways where no one gets hurt. Because in Canada, that’s a huge part of a police officer’s job.
Canadian police almost never fire their guns. For example, in 2018, Toronto’s police fired their weapons in just 17 different incidents, nearly all of which involved the mercy killing of an injured animal. On only three occasions in 2018 did police in Canada largest city shoot bullets at other human beings.
Canadian police spend massively more time dealing with people in mental distress than they do engaging in gunfights with professional criminals. As former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci wrote in 2014, in his report on police interactions with people suffering from mental health issues, police “are usually required to play a helping role, not an enforcement role.”
The reality is that Canadian police often act as social workers with law-enforcement powers. That’s the job. Chiefs, are your officers trained to do it?
Now would be a good time to talk about that. A lack of training, and basic common sense, is how Sammy Yatim ended up shot dead on a Toronto streetcar in 2013. It’s how Robert Dziekanski, a confused man at Vancouver airport in need of a translator and directions, ended being killed by fatally incompetent RCMP officers.
And 2020 has brought more deadly interactions between police and people in distress. In April, 26-year old D’Andre Campbell was shot dead by police in his family’s Brampton, Ont. home. He suffered from mental illness, and this was not the first time police had been at his home. Yet the last time police were called, he was killed. The province’s independent Special Investigations Unit (SIU) is investigating.
And last week, Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death from her apartment balcony, after Toronto Police arrived in response to 9-1-1 calls. Her death, which sparked a peaceful protest in Toronto, once again resulted from an interaction between police and a person in mental distress. It has not been revealed what role police played in her death. Toronto’s chief of police says that by law he may not detail what he knows until the SIU has completed its work.
But the mystery surrounding the case, which saps public confidence, is a reminder of something else all Canadian police forces must do: Wear body cameras.
A camera allowed the world to see exactly what happened to George Floyd. In the case of Ms. Korchinski-Paquet, there’s no video evidence, because Toronto officers don’t wear body cameras.
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders is now urging a quick rollout of cameras. We commend him, though we have to wonder why it’s taken so long. Toronto began studying this issue years ago. Vancouver police are similarly without cameras, despite the provincial government green-lighting their use last year. But in Calgary, all front-line officers have been equipped with body cameras since 2019. Other Canadian police forces should do likewise.
As an American president once said, "trust, but verify.”