Speaker's Corner: Police need more training on non-lethal force (Law Times)

Speaker's Corner: Police need more training on non-lethal force (Law Times)

July 25, 2016

25 July, 2016

Recently, it took just four minutes for David Orazietti, Ontario’s Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, to announce changes that will fundamentally affect law and order across the province.

Law Times
25 July 2016
Written By Paul Dubé

Recently, it took just four minutes for David Orazietti, Ontario’s Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, to announce changes that will fundamentally affect law and order across the province.

Responding to my office’s investigation into how the province directs and trains police in de-escalating conflict situations with persons who have mental illness and/or are in crisis, Orazietti pledged to implement all 22 of our recommendations within a year.

“No family, or police officer, should ever have to go through this kind of experience,” he said, referring to tragedies like that of Sammy Yatim, 18, who was alone on a Toronto streetcar, holding a small knife, when he was shot dead by a Toronto police officer three years ago. (That officer, James Forcillo, will be sentenced imminently for attempted murder after a jury found that the first volley of shots he fired was justified but the second was not.)

The minister’s words are welcome, to be sure. But the sad truth is far too many have gone through that experience, over too many years. The changes that my report recommended were not novel or new to Orazietti’s ministry or anyone familiar with the long list of all-too-similar police shootings in this province, before Mr. Yatim’s death and since. (Another 19 people have been shot dead by police in Ontario in that time.) These changes have been advocated for more than 25 years in hundreds of recommendations by coroners’ juries and numerous studies and inquiries by experts in law and policing.

So, what makes an ombudsman investigation different? As an independent officer of the legislature, I can hold provincial authorities to account for their actions — or lack thereof — in responding to a matter of such clear and urgent public interest. Our investigators reviewed case after case of people who were shot by police in similar situations — in crisis, holding a small knife, scissors, a hammer — and spoke with their families and, in some instances, lawyers. We received 176 complaints and submissions. We also interviewed scores of experts in police training and de-escalation techniques, reviewed what is done in other jurisdictions, and, based on all this evidence, crafted recommendations that will benefit the police and public alike.

Simply put, police will be required to use de-escalation techniques before resorting to lethal force, wherever tactical and safety considerations permit. This will represent a sea change in how police interact with persons in crisis, starting with a new regulation under the outdated Police Services Act (now being overhauled by Orazietti’s ministry) and a new model for when and how police should respond in such situations.

From that will flow a host of enhancements and improvements to police training at every level, from new recruits at the Ontario Police College to seasoned officers undergoing annual skills refresher training, all based on evidence gathered and our interviews with scores of police instructors and experts in de-escalation.

This will bring Ontario more in line with other jurisdictions; at present, it lags behind most of Canada and elsewhere in equipping police with adequate skills and techniques to handle persons in crisis. Although some police services do their own de-escalation training — and a few were keen to help with our investigation, even inviting our investigators to observe some sessions — this can vary widely from one service to another.

The legal and moral authority to ensure consistency for all Ontarians in how police use force lies with the provincial government. For example, it has long ensured that police are extensively trained and have annual refresher courses in the use of firearms — but not de-escalation. In fact, our investigation found recruits take only five 90-minute classes in “de-escalation and communication” techniques in their 12-week course at police college, versus 15 classes in the use of firearms. What’s more, the province has no clear definition of “de-escalation.” It does not require de-escalation skills to be part of officer refresher training, nor does it monitor results where it exists.

The minister’s commitment signals an important and encouraging shift in the government’s approach to policing matters. Although it has been studying police use of force and interaction with individuals with mental illness for four years, there has been little result up to now, apart from the authorization of wider use of Tasers by frontline officers. It rarely exercised its authority to direct police services through regulation. For instance, it did so to limit high-speed police chases in 1999. But in just the past year, it was moved by strong public concerns to draft a regulation on carding (police “street checks”), which is to be implemented next year. And now it has pledged to implement a regulation on de-escalation, per our recommendation.

That’s another thing that makes an ombudsman investigation different: We recommend changes that are constructive. Our report was not critical of police in Ontario but of the fact that they were not adequately equipped to find non-lethal ways to handle difficult and potentially dangerous situations. Now the government is committed, as Orazietti put it, “to ensuring de-escalation is central to the way police respond to those in crisis, and that police officers have the necessary tools to defuse crisis situations in order to keep themselves and the communities they protect safe.”

Our work on this, however, is far from done. We will monitor and report on the government’s progress in implementing these recommendations over the next 12 months. The real measure of progress, of course, will be in the shootings and crises that are averted and the lives that are saved.