It appears there is still no firm commitment to training police on how to deal with the unique and exceptional circumstances presented by confrontations with members of vulnerable groups. This is at the heart of the systemic breakdown in police behaviour.
Make public oversight of police training a priority
Latest shooting incident reveals that current training methods aren’t working.
By Gary Pieters and Tam Goossen
Opinions/Commentary Toronto Star
August 3rd, 2013
As leaders of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, we are bewildered, saddened and concerned by the police shooting death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a streetcar in downtown Toronto.
Were it not for several smartphone videos shot by “citizen journalists” at the scene, the public would not even be aware of the disproportionately brutal response from the officer who fired nine bullets in 15 seconds, followed by a taser.
The public has high expectations of the Toronto Police Service. In confrontations of this kind — a confused, lightly armed youth facing several police with weapons drawn — the use of effective and well-known de-escalation strategies should have been the first option. Force — preferably non-lethal — should have been the last resort.
The police can and must do better to “Serve and Protect” the residents of this diverse city.
Understandably, public reaction has been intense: commentary on social media; flowers, candle and messages at the scene of the shooting; peaceful street protests and vigils, and a very public viewing at Highland Funeral Home. There will be a protest rally at Toronto Police Headquarters to coincide with the upcoming Toronto Police Services Board meeting on Aug. 13.
The shooting of Sammy Yatim by Constable James Forcillo will be a stern test of the system of police accountability and oversight as the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) conducts its investigation. We urge the police to co-operate fully with the SIU if they seek to restore public confidence.
This killing also has rekindled painful memories of similar killings in Toronto that often involved racialized men, some of whom faced mental-health issues. We remember victims such as Lester Donaldson, Buddy Evans, Robert Moses, Wayne Williams, Byron Debassige, Michael Eligon, Michael Wade Lawson, Jeffrey Reodica, Otto Vass, Junior Manon, Edmond Yu and Malcolm Jackmann and many others.
Back in June 2000, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, in collaboration with the then Queen Street Patients Council, organized a conference called Saving Lives: Alternatives to the Use of Lethal Force by Police at the Law Society of Upper Canada. Aboriginal Legal Services, the Black Action Defence Committee, the Chinese Canadian National Council-Toronto Chapter as well as the Toronto Police Service participated.
The subsequent report stated the following:
The Inquest into the death of Lester Donaldson led to recommendations for crisis resolution courses that were implemented in and around 1994. However, by the time of the shooting death of Edmund Yu in 1997, budgetary considerations had prevailed and this same course had been abandoned. None of the officers involved in the Yu shooting had received the training which the Donaldson jury heard was in place. The Yu Inquest recommended the statutory enshrining of crisis resolution training but the Solicitor General for Ontario has not acted in this regard. Police services implement a patchwork of training initiatives that change at such a frequency that it becomes impossible to track performance.
The use of non-lethal technology and mobile crisis teams; supports for people facing mental-health issues; the role of race in police shootings; barriers to change, community policing, transparency and accountability were all identified in the final report.
Follow-up action included meeting with the Toronto Police Services Board asking for implementation of the recommendations. They were, in fact, acknowledged in subsequent Ontario policing standards, specifically a policy called Police Response to Persons, who are Emotionally Disturbed or have a Mental Illness or a Developmental Disability.
Implementation, though, has been a problem. It appears there is still no firm commitment to training police on how to deal with the unique and exceptional circumstances presented by confrontations with members of vulnerable groups. This is at the heart of the systemic breakdown in police behaviour.
So this latest shooting death leads us to call for a separate, civilian, arms-length organization to monitor police training to ensure compliance with training standards. And this organization should be mandated to make regular public reports in order to ensure that professional learning becomes embedded in the policing of this increasingly diverse city.
Gary Pieters is president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and a former member of the Toronto Star Community Editorial Board. Tam Goossen is vice-president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and a school trustee with the former Toronto Board of Education. firstname.lastname@example.org
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