Ontario ombudsman blasts ‘outdated’ police training tool that emphasizes weapons over de-escalation, despite repeated calls for change (The Star)

October 6, 2020

6 October 2020

More than four years after a scathing report cited “neglected” provincial officer training as a factor in fatal shootings, the Ontario ombudsman is blasting the “glacial” pace of police reform as the province has still not fixed central problems he identified.

Wendy Gillis
This link opens in a new tabToronto Star
October 6, 2020

More than four years after a scathing report cited “neglected” provincial officer training as a factor in fatal shootings, the Ontario ombudsman is blasting the “glacial” pace of police reform as the province has still not fixed central problems he identified.

Now, as yet another request has been made to change Ontario’s “outdated” use-of-force tool — a training method critics say increases the likelihood of deaths involving police — ombudsman Paul Dubé is calling out “a discouraging pattern” where policy makers repeatedly study known problems instead of taking action.

“I am dissatisfied, and I am not alone,” Dubé, author of the damning 2016 report A Matter of Life and Death, said in a statement to the Star.

Despite some progress, decades have passed and people continue to die in police interactions in circumstances that investigations and recommendations have addressed “and might have prevented,” he said.

Calls to defund or even abolish police happening now show a lack of confidence that can come from a failure to act on demands, he said.

“If you persistently fail to respond to calls for reforms that are evolutionary, you eventually get demands for changes that are revolutionary,” Dubé said.

The comments come after a groundswell of outrage over fatal police interactions locally and in the U.S. recently prompted the Toronto police board to ask the province to replace Ontario’s highly criticized “use of force” model — four years after Dubé made the same recommendation, which itself echoes similar calls made at coroner’s inquests into fatal police shootings.

A decision-making tool taught to every Ontario officer for potentially volatile confrontations, the 2004 model has been denounced for emphasizing the role of weapons — guiding officers through options such as physical restraints to Tasers to a gun — while failing to promote peaceful resolution options, such as de-escalation.

Recently, the coroner at the inquest into the 2015 death of Andrew Loku, a Black mentally ill man shot dead by Toronto police, called for a new model that emphasized communication and stressed lethal force as a “last resort.”

Changing the model was a key recommendation in Dubé’s report, commissioned after the 2013 fatal Toronto police shooting of Sammy Yatim. The tool’s focus on exerting authority and control makes it “inappropriate for use with people in crisis,” Dubé said.

Given the urgency, Dubé called for the use-of-force model to be replaced “as quickly as possible” and no later than June 2017.

Researchers from the University of Toronto Mississauga later received a provincial government grant to act directly on that recommendation. After a thorough scientific review — including seeking international best practices and surveying hundreds of use-of-force experts across Canada — the team submitted a new model in 2018 that prioritizes peaceful resolution and de-emphasizes weapons.

But there’s been “no demonstration” any of that research has been applied, said lead author Judith Andersen, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s department of psychology who has extensively researched police training.

“The province has now had scientific evidence on how to improve these outcomes for years, and yet they continue to not be adopted,” Andersen said.

Now, the Toronto police board’s motion requests the province review the 2004 model — and redo the work she and her team just painstakingly completed, Andersen said.

“It is disturbing that yet another report has been commissioned when this exact review has already been done,” she said.

“Ignoring the existing reports can only then be interpreted as a stall tactic to avoid putting the recommendations in place or an attempt to have a police insider redesign a model according to their wishes,” she said.

Brent Ross, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, said the ministry provides regular updates to the ombudsman on addressing his report’s recommendations.

Ross said the ministry has been focused on the development of a revised de-escalation and use-of-force curriculum for the basic constable training given to recruits province-wide and specialized training for instructors. This training will “establish a standardized and consistent approach to de-escalation and use of force training across the province,” Ross said.

Developing a new use-of-force model “will be one component of this wholistic training approach.”

“The ministry is examining the research conducted by Dr. Andersen’s team and is engaging subject matter experts and other stakeholders to determine the most appropriate model to support the modernized training,” he said.

He added the ministry is working with a group of experts led by Ryerson University to develop tools and training curriculum for police “to better respond during interactions with people with mental health and addictions issues.” No timeline was provided.

The province is also working to implement new policing legislation, he said.

“Through engagement with stakeholders, the ministry is taking the necessary time to develop these regulatory matters in order to establish a modern and robust framework that appropriately addresses the evolving nature of crime and community safety expectations of Ontarians,” he said.

The Toronto police board’s recommendation that the use-of-force model be reviewed is one of 81 recommendations passed in August in response to unparalleled public pressure for change after recent deaths involving police, both internationally and locally.

Jim Hart, chair of the Toronto police board, said the recommendation is aimed at changing a training tool that is “closing in on two decades.”

“The board believes that a modern approach to use-of-force decision-making that is focused on de-escalation and minimizes use of force, especially with people in crisis, is necessary at this time,” Hart said.

Asked if he is aware that a team led by Andersen had recently completed an extensive review of the use-of-force model, Hart said the board believes the province “should build on all of the important work that has recently been done in this area,” including Andersen’s “evidence-based and data-driven review.”

“However, in addition, as the board’s recommendation notes, it is imperative that such a review also hear directly from community voices and those with lived experience,” Hart said.

Andersen’s report drew upon the ombudsman’s report, the result of a three-year investigation that involved consultation with the families of 13 people who died in interactions with police.

She and her team then interviewed international experts from all over the world, reviewing scientific literature and retaining graphic designers to create a new model that makes clear safety is the “overriding priority.”

“The primary responsibility of an officer is to preserve and protect life,” Andersen’s team wrote in their 2018 report, summarizing the new model’s principles, which prize “a peaceful resolution, with force being rare and only as the last resort.”

Steve Summerville, a former Toronto police officer and a use-of-force instructor who was not involved in Andersen’s report, agreed changes to the province’s use of training are sorely needed but doesn’t lay blame on the model itself.

The issue, Summerville said, is a broader problem within police culture that sees more attention focused on learning weapons skills than communication skills. If officers can be trained to be empathetic, they “will not gravitate towards the application of force.”

“I’m not saying the model needs to be changed, but the emphasis in training needs to be changed,” he said in an interview.

A previous study by Andersen and her team uncovered a patchwork of de-escalation training across the province, with the instruction quality and amount dependent upon resources, which are lacking within many police services.

Dubé recommended de-escalation training to be standardized in Ontario, but said he is still waiting. In an update on his report’s recommendations, the ombudsman’s office notes the province has begun developing “eight new training scenarios for new non-escalation, de-escalation and use-of-force courses.”

Dubé’s report also criticized the duration of the province’s mandatory basic training at the Ontario Police College, which, at 12 weeks, is “far less than those elsewhere in Canada,” he wrote in 2016.

Ross confirmed the basic training program is still 12 weeks.

“To meet the evolving training needs for police officers, the curriculum and senior and specialized training is continually being updated to ensure consistency, reflect academic research outcomes, including best practices, decision making, and address training related recommendations from relevant inquiries and inquests,” Ross said.

Dubé noted there are many leaders in policing committed to reform and modernization, and “tremendous work” is being done by dedicated officers. But police institutions generally like to do things “their way and at their own pace,” he said.

“Unless government drives the change, it will move slowly and be difficult to achieve,” he said.

Following the release of Dubé’s report, Bill Yatim, Sammy’s father, expressed hope that changes to police training would avoid the tragic outcome that had taken his son’s life.

The grieving father had agreed to sit down with Dubé for emotional meetings, believing in the importance of the review and not wanting “Sammy’s blood to have spilled in vain,” Ed Upenieks, Bill Yatim’s lawyer, said in an interview last week.

Years later, it’s clear the message still isn’t getting through, Upenieks said.

“Police training doesn’t seem to be in sync with our demands,” he said. “There’s been an erosion in societal trust and confidence in police.”