Last Saturday, Tamir Rice, age 12, was shot to death by police in Cleveland, Ohio. He was in a park, playing with a toy gun. A bystander was worried that the gun might be real, and called police. A few minutes later, two officers pulled up at high speed. Video from a nearby surveillance camera shows the car racing into the frame, coming to a stop inches from the boy – and his body almost immediately falling to the ground.
Police could have approached slowly. They could have parked down the block and called out over a loudspeaker. They could have tried to see if this kid was a threat. With a bit of patience and common sense – only a few seconds' worth, really – they would have realized there was no danger at all. But instead of calming down, they ramped up. Instead of de-escalating, they escalated – moving from zero to lethal force, with no intervening steps.
This past summer, also in Ohio, police were called to a Wal-Mart in suburban Dayton. The call was like the one in Cleveland. There was a man in the store, said a caller to 911, and he appeared to be carrying a gun. The man was 22-year-old John Crawford, and he was carrying a toy gun on sale in the store. Police burst in and within seconds fatally shot Mr. Crawford. At the time, he was on the phone with his family.
The police on the scene could have chosen to act slowly and calmly. Before firing their weapons, they could have taken a moment to figure out if they were about to make a terrible mistake. They did no such thing. They arrived with their blood up and instantly spilled somebody else's. An American grand jury declined to charge the officers, believing they acted reasonably.
You can learn a lot about good policing by studying bad policing. And like the tales out of Ferguson, Mo., these are stories of very bad policing. If anyone thought they were going by the book, that book needs to be thrown out.
Canada is not the United States. On this score, it's better in many ways. Our crime rates are lower, for one thing, and police use their guns far less often. For example, in 2013 in Toronto, there were only 33 incidents of police discharging their weapons. In two-thirds of those cases, police were aiming not at a person, but at an animal, usually an injured one. In Canada's largest city, there were only 11 instances – less than one per month – of police shooting at a person.
Canada's police are not the Ferguson police, thankfully, but they're still far from perfect. They sometimes use force when they shouldn't, and people end up dead. The case of Robert Dziekanski is the best remembered: The Polish immigrant, who spoke no English, was confused and disoriented when he stepped off a plane in Vancouver. He needed a translator, some directions and a bit of common courtesy. Instead, four RCMP officers charged at him, killing him with multiple jolts of electricity from a taser.
As in Cleveland and Dayton, police responded as if they were in a war zone; they were, in fact, inside a secure and absurdly peaceable tourist facility. There was no threat to them or anyone else. They were carrying weapons but their common sense had been fully disarmed.
What's more, the RCMP initially tried to distort what had happened and exaggerated the threat Mr. Dziekanski posed; it was only when video shot by a bystander came out that it became clear how badly the police had overreacted and how senseless was his death. Whether the police officers involved are criminals is a matter we'll leave up to the courts. It requires no court to determine that they were completely incompetent as police officers. A man died because they didn't understand that their job is to cool off heated situations, not inflame them.
And last year in Toronto, a young man by the name of Sammy Yatim was shot and killed when he had some kind of psychological breakdown on a streetcar, and threatened passengers by pulling out a small knife. The passengers fled the vehicle; a clearly troubled Mr. Yatim remained on it. Large numbers of police arrived and then, to the surprise of bystanders, shots soon rang out, killing Mr. Yatim. He was still alone on the streetcar. Officer James Forcillo has been charged with second-degree murder and attempted murder. To the Toronto Police Service's credit, in response to the death, it commissioned a report on how police should deal with people in mental distress.
What can be done to make policing in Canada better, to reduce unnecessary deaths and generally make everyone in a largely safe country feel even safer? We have three big ideas.
Disarm (some) police: Police in the United Kingdom, where modern policing was invented, normally don't carry guns. Guns are reserved for special situations. But if needed, armed officers are on standby. Last year, what are known as "armed response vehicles" were called in 13,000 times in England and Wales. But only the most senior and experienced officers are allowed to be part of these special teams. How many times did police fire their guns at suspects last year in England and Wales? Exactly three times.
Would disarming some Canadian police make an already safe country even safer? Police forces should find out, by running pilot projects. Take a neighbourhood. Have all of the front-line police in that precinct go about their daily patrols without guns. Measure the results.
Put cameras on cops: From Rodney King to Dziekanski, the most memorable incidents of police misconduct came to light only because a civilian happened to videotape them. A few years ago, most police forces began placing dashboard cameras on their cars. And today, a number of police forces, led in Canada by Calgary, are looking at putting tiny cameras and audio recorders on their officers. It's a wise idea. People tend to behave when they know they're being watched, a fact that applies to regular folks and police officers alike.
Get Smart(er): Police sometimes need to use force. Sometimes they must even use deadly force. But what police above all need is training in how to not use force. They need to be experts in de-escalating conflict and calming people down. They need to be smarter, more reasonable and more level-headed than the people they come into contact with. That's the job.
Unfortunately, North American police culture often seems to be built on meeting threats with greater threats, and issuing ultimatums of the "comply-or-die" variety. In most circumstances, that's exactly the wrong way to go.