WHY CANADIAN POLICE ARE SO GOOD AT NOT SHOOTING PEOPLE
There has been worldwide amazement that Toronto Police did not shoot the suspect in Monday’s vehicular attack.
He had left a street strewn with bodies and was wielding an object that he claimed was a firearm. Nevertheless, Const. Ken Lam not only arrested him without using lethal force, but did it without waiting for backup.
Seven months ago, when a 30-year-old man perpetrated a similar vehicular attack in downtown Edmonton — which injured four, in addition to the stabbing of a police officer — he too was apprehended without a single shot being fired. Both events speak to a pattern: Canadian police are very good at not shooting people.
“Policing in Canada is not policing in America … the police in Canada use force with incredible infrequency,” said Joel Johnston, a veteran Vancouver Police officer and former use-of-force co-ordinator for British Columbia.
A recent CBC analysis found that between 2000 and 2017, 461 people were killed as a result of interactions with police in Canada. Of those deaths, 70 per cent were caused by gunshots — or about 19 police shooting deaths per year.
In the United States by contrast, an average of 982 people per year have been shot and killed by police since 2015, according to The Washington Post. Even given the larger population, that’s a per capita rate of police shootings seven times higher than in Canada.
Canada’s far lower rate of gun crime certainly plays a role, but Johnston credits police training programs that prioritize de-escalation over confrontation. “(Canadian police) are trained to try and calm folks down,” he said.
This was notably on display in Monday’s arrest when, soon after arriving on scene, Const. Lam turned off the siren on his cruiser so the suspect could better hear his commands. “If you can’t physically communicate with someone, the process doesn’t move forward,” said Johnston.
Christian Leuprecht, a crime policy researcher at both Queen’s University and Royal Military College, said that from available video of Monday’s arrest it is immediately clear that the officer did not believe he was facing someone holding a firearm.
“I get the sense that (the officer) assessed the risk to be low,” he said, adding that the officer appeared to be very experienced with such standoffs. “This is not his first time at the rodeo.”
In a normal encounter with an armed suspect, a police officer is trained to crouch behind the engine block of the cruiser, thus ensuring that any bullets will be absorbed by the vehicle. Instead, video footage shows that the responding officer took an exposed position in front of the suspect.
Johnston noted that it’s difficult to use grainy video to gauge what Const. Lam would have been able to see — a rule he says should apply equally in controversial videos involving alleged instances of excessive force.
“When people look at video, they don’t know what they don’t know,” he said.
Toronto police have provided few details as to what guided the officer’s actions on Monday, with Chief Mark Saunders telling a press conference it was due to “the high-calibre training that takes place.”
Police are indeed trained to quickly distinguish between guns and other objects. In fact, the Toronto Police museum, housed on the first floor of Toronto Police Service headquarters, includes an interactive exhibit on the mechanics of splitsecond gun identification.
Leuprecht noted that Const. Lam took his time to walk back and forth across the scene before deciding to make an arrest. “He spends a good minute assessing the situation,” he said. At one point, he even backs away to give himself more space.
This isn’t to say the constable wasn’t entering a potentially deadly situation. The suspect could have been wearing an explosive vest or there could have been explosives in the van. It’s also within the realm of possibility that the suspect could have been holding an unconventional or makeshift firearm.
At similar attacks in Europe and Israel, perpetrators have often jumped from the car to continue the attack.
“If you’re responding to a guy who just mowed down 10 people, you could die on that call,” said Leuprecht.
Given the circumstances, it would have been considered well within procedure if the responding officer had simply contained the suspect from a distance and waited for Toronto’s SWATlike Emergency Task Force to conduct the arrest.
Close inspection of the video, though, shows Const. Lam gradually becoming more confident in front of the suspect, until he sees an opening to perform the arrest himself. With unaware pedestrians only steps away, it was obviously preferable to get the suspect in handcuffs as quickly as possible.
Several aspects of the attacker’s behaviour might have outed him as being someone who could be approached without the use of lethal force, according to experts contacted by the National Post.
Notably, unlike most terror suspects, he repeatedly performed furtive movements in an apparent attempt to draw a lethal response from the officer. “Shoot me in the head,” he said at one point.
“I look at that situation and I do not believe that this individual’s motive was terror-oriented,” said Nir Maman, managing director with the Canadian Tactical Officers’ Association. “His actions are very, very indicative of a phenomenon called ‘suicide by cop.’ ”
In a video shot from above, documenting the final moments before Lam takes hold of the suspect, it even appears as if the officer holsters his firearm and deploys an expandable baton instead.
“At that point, I would say that becomes a moment when the officer is explicitly able to identify that the object was not in fact a firearm,” said Maman.
As per standard training, Canadian police are instructed to carefully pair their “use of force” with the situation they’re facing. This would explain why the officer immediately swapped a gun for a baton upon confirming he was facing a less threatening situation. “That is all training-based,” said Maman.
Although the arrest has been hailed as an example of humane policing, there are also strategic reasons to capture an attacker alive.
Leuprecht noted that within hours of the attack, public safety minister Ralph Goodale was able to confirm it was not part of a coordinated terrorist plot. This obviously would have been much harder to verify if police had only a bullet-riddled body next to a Ryder van.
(CANADIAN POLICE) ARE TRAINED TO TRY AND CALM FOLKS DOWN... IF YOU CAN’T PHYSICALLY COMMUNICATE WITH SOMEONE, THE PROCESS DOESN’T MOVE FORWARD.
— JOEL JOHNSTON, VANCOUVER POLICE
Const. Ken Lam, right, faces off with Alek Minassian after the van rampage Monday.