The Canadian Press
June 29, 2016
TORONTO - Families of people killed by police are "hopeful" the Ontario government will act on an ombudsman's report calling for improved training in de-escalation techniques for officers who encounter people in crisis.
The report, issued Wednesday, calls on the government to mandate better police training in how to interact with people who are dealing with mental health or addiction issues, without drawing their guns as the first option.
"Ontario officers have plenty of training on how to use their guns, but not enough on how to use their mouths," ombudsman Paul Dubé said.
"The majority of their training focuses on exerting authority and establishing control over armed or hostile subjects, principally by drawing their weapons and yelling commands."
Nineteen people have been killed in police shootings in Ontario since the ombudsman's office opened a special investigation following the shooting death of Sammy Yatim, 18, on a Toronto streetcar in July 2013.
Various coroner's inquests have shown police respond with their guns in such situations because they are following their training, said Dubé.
"We don't need another study or consultation to determine that police training on de-escalation is inadequate," he said.
There have been hundreds of recommendations from coroner's juries for better police training to deal with dangerous interactions, and the government needs to "review the human costs of their legacy of inaction to finally make this issue a priority," added Dubé.
"It is time for the ministry to direct police services on how to de-escalate situations of conflict before they result in the use of lethal force against people in crisis," he said.
"It is not just a matter of long-overdue leadership, but of saving lives."
Nabil Yatim, Sammy's father, believes his son would still be alive if the officer who shot him would have had better de-escalation training.
"I'm almost positive he would be," he said.
The ombudsman's recommendations are "a start," but more must be done, added Yatim.
"It's the culture that has to be changed," he said.
The government is "committed to implementing these recommendations" from the ombudsman, said Community Safety Minister David Orazietti.
"The use of force model certainly needs to be redefined," he said.
"We know that there is ample research and evidence from other jurisdictions that have different models, and I think we can learn from them."
Joanne MacIsaac, whose brother Michael, 47, was killed in the street by Durham police in 2013 after he ran out of the house naked and brandishing a table leg, said she was "cautiously optimistic" the government would finally act to improve police training.
Michael was shot dead within eight seconds of the police opening their car doors, and "they didn't ask him a thing," added MacIsaac.
"I think also the attitude and the culture has to change, and the recruitment," she said.
MacIsaac wasn't impressed with the way Orazietti ducked questions about the deaths that followed years of government inaction on the calls for better police training to deal with disturbed and potentially dangerous people.
"They didn't want to look back. Well I want to look back and I think they should address that," she said. "By admitting there's problems that need changes, then perhaps they're responsible for what's happened in the past."
Karyn Greenwood-Graham, whose son, Trevor, 26, was shot by Waterloo police in 2007 after brandishing a knife following a drugstore robbery, urged people to lobby the government to makes sure the ombudsman's recommendations are implemented.
"We need this change," she said. "We need it to happen, and we need the new minister's commitment to that change."
Ontario's basic police training course at 12 weeks is among the shortest in North America — and only half as long as the RCMP's program — and is more focused on how to use weapons than on finding alternatives, said Dubé.
"My report is not critical of police, It is critical of the inadequate training they receive," he said. "These shootings are traumatic for everyone, including the officers."
The Canadian Mental Health Association said it agreed police should receive more training in mental health crisis intervention.
"De-escalating a crisis situation is imperative to resolving a conflict with anyone, especially someone with lived experience of mental health issues," said Camille Quenneville, CEO of the CMHA's Ontario division.