Anytime there’s an allegation that a police officer has committed a crime against a citizen, the incident, the people involved and the facts are all unique. Only by looking at them impartially, without prejudice against some or favouritism for others, can we find out what happened. That’s the definition of justice.
There may be things in this world that are systemic – systemic racism, for example – but our justice system is built on individual responsibility, and the goal of eliminating systemic discrimination is about getting to a future where everyone has confidence that the judgments of police, and of the entire justice system, are grounded in a fair assessment of the facts of each case, untainted by prejudice.
You can’t generalize your way to a finding of guilt in a specific case. In a society of equal treatment before the law, each case has to be assessed on its own merits.
For example, the killing of George Floyd, a Black American who died on May 25, after an American police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes, cannot speak to what did or did not happen two days later, in Toronto, when Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death from an apartment balcony, after Toronto police were called to her home.
Nor can the fact that some Canadian police forces have a history of overpolicing Black and Indigenous Canadians tell us what happened, or did not happen, in any individual incident. All it can do is demand that we take a closer look, to get beyond preconceptions and search for the truth.
That’s what Ontario’s independent police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, did in the case of Ms. Korchinski-Paquet. It released its findings on Wednesday. They describe an incident that, though it involved police, a person of colour, a death and subsequent protests, is otherwise nothing like the murder of Mr. Floyd.
Beginning at 5:13 p.m. on May 27, Toronto Police received several 911 calls. All came from family members in a 24th-floor apartment who described a violent domestic dispute sparked by an argument over the volume of the television, and which began after Ms. Korchinski-Paquet had an epileptic seizure.
Ms. Korchinski-Paquet told the 911 operator that her mother and brother had attacked her, and knives were involved. Her brother said his sister had attacked him. Their mother said bottles and punches had been thrown, and she wanted her children out of her apartment.
When officers arrived, things had spilled into the hall. Police separated the family members and began trying to figure out what was going on.
About six minutes in, Ms. Korchinski-Paquet asked to use the bathroom. While in the bathroom she called her father, and then she and her mother began to argue. Her mother had earlier told police she wanted her daughter taken to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
By now, paramedics were on scene, and police encouraged Ms. Korchinski-Paquet to talk to them. She refused and went onto the balcony. Moments later, she tried to climb to the apartment next door. Instead, she fell 62 metres.
The SIU investigation describes what looks like police acting professionally. Officers arrived at a domestic dispute, and, in the SIU’s telling, they tried to de-escalate it. They did not use violence, and they sought help from medical professionals. “There is no suggestion of an undue show of force by the officers,” says the SIU report, “or unnecessarily aggressive behaviour in tone or movement.”
When Ms. Korchinski-Paquet went to the balcony, officers could have gone out and restrained her. In hindsight, they should have. But the police had been attempting to lower everyone’s temperature, not raise it. They were trying to talk it out. The SIU concludes that the police concern that using force might worsen the situation “was not without merit.”
Do we need better co-operation between police and mental-health experts, including having more of the latter as first responders in the many cases involving people in distress? Yes, and Toronto has promised that.
Does this case prove that discrimination doesn’t exist? Obviously not. But it’s a reminder that the only way our society can get beyond discrimination, and the only way our legal system can be just, is by aiming for a future where every case is handled without favouritism, and every individual is judged with an impartiality that transcends skin colour, or the colour of a uniform.
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