John Lorinc (@johnlorinc) is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about politics and urban affairs. He is senior editor of Spacing Magazine.
Amid the carnage and speculation that followed Monday’s mass killing by 25-year-old man who allegedly plowed his van along a crowded Toronto sidewalk, the actions of the lone police officer who arrested the suspect have emerged as an unexpected silver lining around a dark cloud.
Cellphone video of the encounter shows the officer confronting a driver wielding something that looks like a gun. But unlike the endless stream of bystander videos that document cops in such situations firing and killing a presumed suspect, the Toronto officer keeps his cool, persuades the man to drop the object (a cellphone) and then gets him into handcuffs, all in the span of a few dozen seconds.
While the officer, a seven-year veteran whose name has not been released, is being widely hailed as a hero for his restraint in an obviously high-stakes and uncertain situation, the real story here is not so much about the actions of one cop, but rather an embattled police service that had little choice but to confront its use of force practices.
In many American cities, police shootings all too often involve race. Toronto’s police service (TPS) has also faced numerous incidents in which racial minorities, and especially black men, have been shot. But in this city, many of these cases also involved emotionally distressed individuals, some, though not all of whom, were visible minorities.
All too frequently, police officers assaulted or shot people who were clearly suffering from some kind mental illness. The string of such fatalities stretched back to the late 1980s. In one 2012 case, the victim was wandering around in a hospital gown in Toronto neighborhood, possibly armed with scissors. He was shot and killed within moments of being spotted by a squad of officers.
A succession of coroner’s inquests and expert reports, including an exhaustive 2014 study by a retired Supreme Court justice, slammed the TPS for failing to train officers to de-escalate these encounters. More recently, another inquest into the 2015 police shooting of Andrew Loku, a distressed black man wielding a hammer, identified systemic racism as a key factor in his death.
Yet this grim narrative may have began to shift after Sammy Yatim, a 17-year-old, was shot and killed on a Toronto streetcar in July, 2013. Police were called because he was acting erratically and wielding a knife. All the passengers exited without incident, and then Yatim, alone in the vehicle, was shot nine times by Toronto constable James Forcillo. The shooting, captured on a cellphone, illustrated how little time had elapsed between Forcillo’s arrival on the scene and the sound of gunfire.
Unlike the vast majority of such cases, a judge convicted Forcillo of attempted murder two years ago, although aspects of his case remain under appeal. According to TPS officials and front-line officers, the incident precipitated a sea change in the way the force approaches unpredictable, high-tension incidents. In recent years, front-line officers taking their mandatory annual refresher course have been trained to draw on a range of deescalation techniques intended to slow down events and buy time for specialized reinforcements to arrive.The sessions, which now focus on emotionally distressed people, include training that assists officers to identify the suspect’s triggers and use calming language to take the energy out of a confrontation.
The TPS training schools also replaced role-playing scenarios that involved the use of paint guns with training guns that shoot blanks. The reason: The paint gun scenarios had required extensive protective gear that made these sessions feel less immediate for the participants. A key theme of the new type of training, according to one front-line officer who recently received his annual retraining, has to do with time. For years, the goal in such high-stakes encounters was to arrest or take out the perpetrator as quickly as possible.
Today, cops are trained to do everything they can to slow things down. Indeed, in the Yatim shooting, the young man was alone on a streetcar whose doors could have been easily closed from the outside with virtually no risk. Instead, Forcillo approached the front entrance and shot him within a matter of seconds. The shift in training is accompanied by other operational changes. More Toronto cops are now equipped with Tasers, which are not without controversy, and the TPS has also invested in weapons that fire bean bags or rubber plugs that will knock someone down but won’t kill them.
While the officer in the middle of yesterday’s tragedy offered what amounts to a master class in how to conduct a nonviolent take-down in an extremely tense situation, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all future such incidents will follow a similar script. Alek Minassian, the suspect in Monday’s mass killing, is white, while a disproportionate number of victims in police shootings are racial minorities.
Still, the outcome does offers a measure of hope that a new approach to police training – one that aims to de-escalate uncertain encounters – could lead to less bloodshed and, possibly, improve trust in those tasked with enforcing the law.
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