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Why It's Dangerous When Police Start Policing Themselves

02/04/2014 12:13 EST | Updated 04/06/2014 05:59 EDT

Another questionable police shooting made the headlines yesterday morning, as Montreal police officers shot and killed a hammer-wielding man near the city's main bus terminal.

According to QMI, witnesses said a total of six officers surrounded the armed suspect, who refused orders to drop his hammer. Police officers had requested that a stun gun be brought to the scene, but by the time it was on its way or had arrived, the suspect had already been shot and was being transported to the hospital. The man in his 40s would later die from his wounds.

This past summer, an 18-year-old man on a stopped (and, most importantly, empty) TTC streetcar was fatally shot by a Toronto police officer while brandishing nothing more than a knife. The male officer fired three shots, and while the teen lay motionless on the floor of the streetcar, a few seconds later the same officer let loose another six rounds, killing him.

A few years ago, right here in Montreal, 36-year old Patrick Limoges died on his way to work. While police officers were trying to subdue a violent homeless man, they shot and killed the instigator, accidentally also killing Limoges, an innocent bystander who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The incidents are all different, yet the questions they make me ponder are the same:

In all three cases, why did the police feel that they needed to use such excessive force to subdue men wielding -- in quick succession here -- nothing more than a hammer, nothing more than a knife, and finally, in the third example, nothing at all.

In Patrick Limoge's death, the homeless man police shot at and killed was -- by all accounts -- only taking out his issues on... a bunch of garbage bags.

Why, then, did four police officers feel so threatened and outnumbered by one unarmed man that they needed to pull out guns and shoot? Why were nine police officers so afraid of one teenager brandishing nothing more than a knife that they couldn't taser him or fire rubber bullets? Why was shooting to kill the only viable option?

In yesterday's incident, why were tasers and stun guns not available as the first resort? Why did the officers need to call in for a taser, and why -- when they did -- did they not wait for it to arrive, but decided to go ahead and shoot?

Are police officers adequately trained to handle situations where they feel threatened, without resorting to violence as a knee-jerk reaction? Was there a way that this tragedy could have been avoided and will there be an inquest that is thorough enough and impartial enough that tragedies like this won't repeat themselves?

Because they keep repeating themselves.

There would be many compelled to say that it's unfair for me to question the necessity of firing a weapon, being that as a journalist and writer my biggest on-the-job threats consist of paper cuts and carpel tunnel syndrome.

What, after all, do I know about the very real dangers of being a police officer?

I'd be the first to agree that I don't know what a cop's job entails. I don't know what it feels like to operate daily under the very real threat that something or someone could threaten my life.

I don't know how fidgety or trigger happy that everyday knowledge might make me, but, here's the difference: I'm not trained for such stressful, adrenaline-pumping situations, and police officers are. Or, one would hope that they are.

Do we actually have a police force that is equipped to de-escalate conflict through non-violent means? Are police officers supported and trained to engage with vulnerable people, like the homeless and people with mental illness?

And what about certain cops who feel above the law? Let's not pretend that they don't exist. All professions have their rotten apples. But an unscrupulous, compromised accountant doesn't have a gun in his hand and a license to kill, and incidents of "justifiable homicides" involving police officers happen everywhere and way too often for anyone's comfort.

A few days ago, Arizona police officers shot and killed a man who clearly had his back turned and his hands raised in the air. What perceived threat to anyone's safety would justify shooting a man who is not showing signs of fighting anyone, despite what his track record might show or whatever the reasons for the police pursuit in the first place? Even criminals have a right to a fair trial.

While I have immense respect for the challenges and threats police officers face on a daily basis, carte blanche should never be given to those whom society has permitted to brandish weapons with the sole purpose of protecting and serving the greater good.

And Quebec's police force is still a police force, which - despite repeated demands by the public and a strong denunciation by the Quebec Human Rights Commission - continues to lack transparency in its actions, still displays clear signs of racial profiling, still conducts too many inquiries in the dark and insists on policing itself despite the credibility points it loses in the process.

Nowhere is the lack of transparency on display more dramatic than officer-involved shootings, and it's imperative that the police should not be policing themselves. It's an outright conflict of interest and opens the door to a strong possibility of bias. You are basically putting police officers in charge of policing other police officers. What could possibly be wrong?

Why don't we let athletes tally up their own scores during a game while we're at it, or politicians count their own ballots during an election. Does that sound absurd? Well so does this, yet it continues to be the status quo, despite the public outcry.

We urgently need a neutral agency to serve as a check and balance, and -- just as was established in Ontario decades ago -- create an independent civilian agency investigating such incidents.

If a community senses that its officers do not play by the rules, it fosters a sense of distrust and disrespect of the police department. The consequences can be far reaching and detrimental to all.

And despite the many upstanding, ethical police officers out there, the force has given the public numerous reasons to question its conduct. There have been a number of high profile cases of alleged police brutality in Canada and Quebec, including the 2010 G-20 Toronto summit protests, the 2012 Quebec student protests, and the Robert Dziekanski taser incident.

The recent public incidents in which police judgments or actions have been called into question have raised fundamental concerns about police accountability and governance. These concerns need to be addressed.

I don't claim to have any particular insight about what happened yesterday morning that left a man dead. I don't know if he was high on drugs, a potential menace to passersby, mentally ill, uttering threats, unpredictable and violent.

What I do know is that he was holding nothing more than a hammer. And perhaps one man wielding nothing more than a hammer, facing a whopping total of six police officers, could have been detained and removed as a threat without someone pumping a bullet into him and ending his life.

Perhaps a troubled man with mental problems could have had a chance to be saved by a police force that purports to protect and serve us all.

All.

Even the discarded ones who end up on the street with nowhere to go and no one to claim them.

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