The Toronto Police Service (TPS) has received international praise since Const. Ken Lam arrested Alek Minassian, the 25-year-old man charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder for Monday's van attack, without the officer firing his drawn gun.
Lam deserves praise as a public employee doing his job, not as a superhero, which even he has asked not to be called. The TPS as a whole, however, deserves no praise at all.
In a press conference Monday night, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders attributed Lam's actions to the training the officer received. One reporter had the sense to ask about the discrepancy between this case and an incident in July 2013 when an officer, who would later be convicted of attempted murder, shot 18-year-old Sammy Yatim to death on a streetcar. Saunders brushed the question off, but the public shouldn't.
Police forces tell the public that officers will de-escalate situations, and failing that, use as little force as possible. An officer doing what's promised to the public is not going above and beyond, but rather what should be expected. Unfortunately, the TPS often fails to reach even that bar.
According to a CBC News investigation, the TPS killed 52 people from 2000 to 2017, 36.5 per cent of whom were black, despite black people only making up 8.3 per cent of the population during that period.
It's more accurate to describe Lam's actions as an exception to the rule
People experiencing mental health issues also made up a significant portion of these victims in Toronto. (Nationwide, 70.3 per cent of those killed by police had mental health or substance abuse issues.) For example, in 2008, two TPS officers killed Byron DeBassige, a 28-year-old Indigenous man with schizophrenia, after he stole two lemons. In 2012, Michael Eligon, a 29-year-old black man, walked out of a hospital carrying a pair of scissors. The officers who came across Eligon admitted they knew he was experiencing a mental health crisis, but a constable shot him to death anyway.
Police officers often like to call certain cops bad apples, portraying them as exceptions to a generally good force (although the Special Investigations Unit usually decides not to lay any charges against such officers). Yet as made clear by the TPS' history, it's more accurate to describe Lam's actions as an exception to the rule.
The TPS is using, and likely will continue to use, this incident as part of their public relations. If their attempts are successful, and Lam's actions are offered as proof of how effective the TPS' training is, then it will be easier to write off future allegations of officers using excessive force.
Reporter asks Toronto Police Chief Saunders: "How was [the van attack suspect] arrested without incident and not shot?"— ABC News (@ABC) April 24, 2018
"It's directly related to the high caliber training that takes place. The officers here are taught to use as little force as possible in any given situation." pic.twitter.com/nViQFVALaX
The public shouldn't aid the TPS' efforts, but rather push for more.
In the past few years, the training officers receive has changed, due in large part to pressure from some community groups. According to Toronto-based journalist John Lorinc in the Washington Post, the killing of Yatim, and the resulting outcry, led the force to ensure that annual refresher courses focus more on de-escalation tactics.
This has included "training that assists officers to identify the suspect's triggers and use calming language to take the energy out of a confrontation." Lorinc notes there's also now an emphasis on buying time in confrontations, whereas in the past officers were instructed to take down their target as quickly as possible.
This shows that public pressure can lead to reforms. However, the TPS must do more, as there have been 11 other instances of the TPS using deadly force since Yatim was killed.
For example, in July 2015, a TPS constable killed Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old man with mental health issues who was holding a hammer. A coroner's inquest later determined the incident, which led to nationwide protests, was a homicide, and that systemic racism played a role.
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There have also been reported examples of excessive, though non-lethal, uses of force. In February, three Toronto Transit Commission officers, and two TPS officers, took part in an arrest where a 19-year-old black man was pushed into a concrete platform outside a streetcar, twisting and pinning one of his arms, and sitting on his back and knees. The man was held like this for some time, despite screaming out in pain. He ended up being released without charge, and is now suing the force.
The public should leave it up to the TPS to award Lam a medal and pat itself on the back. Instead, they should remain critical, and listen to those most frequently targeted by the TPS. They'll need solidarity more than the TPS needs praise.
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