Last week, a young man was shot by police as he brandished a knife aboard an empty Toronto streetcar.
While many of the facts are not yet known, a bystander's smartphone video footage confirms that no one else was on the streetcar at the time. Several shots were fired; the suspect died at the scene.
As many police officers will explain, it's a heck of a lot easier to second-guess the actions of the attending police from a quiet chair far from the situation. An individual had endangered passengers and the streetcar operator in a set of bizarre actions that made predicting his next act almost impossible. Police are trained first to control the situation and, secondly, to end the threat. They surrounded the streetcar, demanded several times that the suspect drop his weapon and, when he did not, ended the threat in a most final way.
No police officer wants to shoot a person. In high-stress response situations, police get anxious and afraid just like the rest of us, so they must fall back on training. Training in the use of force continuum mandates the actions apparently taken here. When a potentially deadly weapon is used or threatened, the situation must end.
The question is: "When?"
A main tenet of police culture and, frankly, most public expectation is "hurry up." There's an emergency: Get there quickly; get it done.
In the rush to respond and end the threat, precious little time is taken to assess risk and consider the variety of responses available.
What was the danger, once the suspect was alone on the streetcar? He might drive away – cut the power. He might escape out of one of the two doors – drive a police car broadside against the doors, and if the suspect is able to open them and clamber over the car, his exit would be so awkward that his apprehension would be safer. He might vandalize the interior of the streetcar – repair it later, which is cheaper than a Special Investigations Unit probe and an inquiry. It's also easier to explain to his parents.
One hour later, 10 hours later, the suspect will tire. Disarming him will become less dangerous. Other options, including the assistance of Emergency Task Force officers, the most highly trained responders, require time to set up.
If the situation can be controlled, and danger to others greatly reduced, that is step one. Step two, ending the threat, can then benefit from time to assess risk and consider options requiring less-than-deadly force.
Early commentators have expressed a demand for more mental health response training for police, and to make mental health crisis teams more readily available to assist. Any such impetus should be welcomed, and best practices such as those employed in Portland, Ore., and elsewhere can be drawn on. The combined police/mental health nurse crisis response teams we currently deploy have, without a doubt, prevented much suffering and saved lives.
The principal lesson to learn from this most recent event is, however, a different one. We suspect, but we do not know, that mental health issues contributed.
Whether the causal factor is mental health issues, intoxication by drugs or alcohol, or something else, the core response can very well be the same. When the circumstances permit control of the risk to the public and the police, assess the dangers, weigh the options and let time be on your side.
It's time to train and mandate police to make patience a tactical response.
Gordon Mack Scott, a safety and security consultant with the Strategic Improvement Company Inc., has spent more than 30 years in law enforcement and security work. The company specializes in critical incident response and training.