Police use of deadly force continues to be one of the most controversial and misunderstood aspects of modern Law Enforcement.
Mainstream media accounts of these events are often inflammatory, inaccurate and irresponsible.
Public sentiment is frequently built on the shaky foundations built by the press. I’m still shocked by the number of people I meet who believe everything they read or hear in mainstream media. Since launching The Police Insider in April 2013 I’ve explored the use of deadly force in two (2) highly controversial Police involved shootings in the Province of Ontario. The stories examined deadly force encounters with Police Officers from the TPS (Toronto Police Service) and the DRPS (Durham Regional Police Service).
Police Insider Stories;
These articles contained dispassionate, objective analysis of these deadly force encounters and examined the issue of justification. The motivation for writing the stories centered on my desire to offer insight and understanding into the dynamics involved in these tragic events.
The analysis was based on experience gained working five (5) years as a tactical team Officer and (8) years as a Homicide investigator and Supervisor. In Winnipeg, the Homicide Unit Supervisor is responsible for leading the majority of Police involved shooting investigations. The Supervisor is also required to complete a detailed report examining the justification for the use of force, the appropriateness of the use of force and any issues related to use of force policy.
After publishing the articles I was struck by the hostile reader responses categorizing Police Officers as murderers, wife beaters, drunk drivers, racists and trigger happy nut jobs.
Not all responses were filled with hostile anti-Police vitriol.
“I tend to generally agree that police often overreact in cases like these and then are later exonerated for their behaviour. I do, however, want to commend the author of this article for his reasonable account of the events and his restrained and polite responses in the comments that follow,” one reader wrote.
I understand these events evoke strong emotional reactions from affected families and expect a certain degree of hostility and condemnation from people who suffer a loss due to a Police involved shooting. The Yatim & MacIsaac shootings sparked rallies, vigils and claims that Police use of deadly force was skyrocketing. People making the claims suggest Police Officer’s use of force is reckless and members of the public should live in fear of “The Police State and Cop Culture.” Critics point to a recent protest in Albuquerque, New Mexico where citizens gathered to confront Police after a homeless man was shot and killed following a long standoff. The Albuquerque Police Department serves a population of 555,000 and has been involved in twenty-three (23) fatal Police involved shootings since 2010. Protesters suggest the numbers support their assertions the Police Department is out of control.
Does the American experience transcend the Canadian border?
Are Canadian Police Officers really a bunch of trigger happy killers lurking in the shadows waiting to slay the next unsuspecting citizen?
According to the Special Investigations Unit the number of fatal Police involved shootings in Ontario have remained consistent over the last twenty-one (21) years. It’s clear, the statistics simply don’t back up the hype;
Ontario Special Investigations Unit Statistical Report;
The highest number of fatal Police Shootings in Ontario occurred in 2010 when a total of ten (10) cases were reported. The second highest number of cases were recorded fourteen (14) years earlier in 1996 when nine (9) incidents were reported. It’s important to note that only five (5) fatal Police involved shootings were reported in 2012, a 37.5% decrease from the previous year.
During my twenty-six (26) year career in Law Enforcement I found myself facing dozens of highly volatile deadly force encounters. Training, skill and luck all played significant roles in helping me avoid the need to use deadly force in these incidents. Police Officers are often killed because they fail to appropriately react when they find themselves facing a deadly force encounter. When it comes to the principle of action versus reaction the odds do not favour the person wearing the uniform.
Police Officers are the ones we send to the emergency calls when the Sammy Yatim’s of the world experience psychological breaks and arm themselves with edged weapons on public transit. They’re the ones we call when the Michael MacIsaac’s of the world suffer from medical conditions that result in them running barefoot and naked down the street in midwinter. The Police Officers who respond to those calls are trained to scan the environment to identify a threat. Once that threat is identified the Officer must interpret and respond to the threat. Is there a weapon, intent and delivery system. If so, is there an immediate threat of suffering death or grievous bodily harm. If there is, the Officer must act. The lives of the Officer, partner and members of the public depend on the Officer’s ability to act. That decision is often made in a fraction of a second only to be subsequently scrutinized over the days, weeks, months and years that follow.
What the Officer doesn’t see is the person behind the threat. He doesn’t see the father, husband, brother or son. He doesn’t see the human being or the adored family member. He doesn’t have the time or ability to play Psychologist to diagnose the underlying conditions that sparked the deadly force encounter.
The Officer must act.
Weapon, intent, delivery system.
If anyone should be afraid it’s the Police Officers who swear an oath to serve and protect.
At a National Conference this year Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu said, “One of the things I used to say was that the police were the mental health response agency of last resort. The police are increasingly becoming the mental health response agency of first resort.”
We expect Police Officer’s to fight the war on drugs, confront criminal street gangs, take illegal guns off the streets, execute high risk drug warrants and take back our neighbourhoods. Now we seem to have evolved to a place where Police Officers are forced to be on the front lines confronting citizens who suffer from mental health issues.
That’s not the only reason Police Officers should be afraid.
What happens when the ever evolving political climate shifts and the presumption of innocence is stripped away from the men and women we rely on to keep the peace.
Enter Toronto Police Tactical Team member Constable David Cavanagh.
On September 29, 2010, Constable Cavanagh was part of a team assigned to execute a high risk warrant at the residence of a man identified as Eric Osawe. According to reports, the Courts found the Police warrant, “was grounded in an excellent credible basis for the belief that Mr. Osawe traded in cocaine and handguns” and enjoyed a reputation “as an armed drug and firearms trader.”
In short, Constable Cavanagh accidentally shot and killed Osawe after his MP5 submachine gun accidentally discharged during a struggle. The shooting was investigated by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit who subsequently filed manslaughter charges in connection with the incident.
In February 2012, Prosecutors reviewed the file and upgraded the charges to 2nd degree murder.
The upgraded charge suggests Prosecutors believed that Cavanagh intended to kill Osawe.
Ontario Court Justice Michael Block presided over the preliminary hearing and discharged Cavanagh on all charges indicating he believed the shooting was just what it was purported to be, a terrible accident. The Crown was not satisfied with the decision and went on to launch several appeals. The appeals were dismissed by the Courts who found, “the shooting was entirely unintentional and indeed totally accidental.”
The case was reported in the National Post by Christie Blatchford who was prompted to editorialize; “It’s as if they couldn’t make up their minds quite how, somehow, they were going to make an example of this fellow Cavanagh. And in a case that was all about holding the police accountable, how interesting it is that no one ever answers for the decisions of the Crown.”
An interesting observation.
The Cavanagh case was almost identical to a home-grown Police involved shooting assessed much differently.
On July 24, 2009, at 2:19 am, the Winnipeg Police Tactical Team executed a high risk drug warrant at a residence in the Cities north end. Like Osawe, the subject of the search warrant was a known drug dealer who was believed to be in possession of narcotics and a firearm. He was also believed to have connections to a local street gang.
During the execution of the search warrant a five (5) year member of the Police Service encountered the non-compliant subject in a bedroom. As he struggled with the suspect the man’s hands came within reach of a replica firearm. At that precise moment the Officer’s C-8 rifle discharged twice striking the man in the right hip area shattering his femur and causing other minor injuries. (The injuries were not life threatening.) The Officer insisted the shots were fired as a result of an accidental discharge despite the fact he would have been justified in the use of deadly force at that moment.
I was called upon to run the investigation.
In addition to running the investigation, it was my duty to review and analyze all reports, statements, forensic examination results and other documents. In completing the shooting synopsis report I had no difficulty concluding no criminal charges were warranted in the incident. In fact, it was clear the Officer would have been justified in shooting the suspect had he intended to do so. My shooting synopsis and analysis was submitted for external review by an RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) use of force expert in British Columbia who concurred with all of my investigative findings.
Those findings suggested the events were driven by the suspect who could have easily avoided the confrontation had he simply been compliant during the execution of the search warrant. I have little doubt Mr Osawe would still be alive today if he had done the same.
In light of the Cavanagh case, I shudder to think of what may have happened to the WPS Officer had the investigation been run by the Ontario Special Investigations Unit. Unwarranted criminal charges, years of legal proceedings, unimaginable stress and a life put on hold. I hope Zane Tessler, Executive Director of the pending Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba, is paying attention.
Let’s consider a few truths…
- Police Officers are not out there itching to pull their out their glocks to blow away decent law-abiding citizens. They’re out there trying to keep the peace and attempting to deal with the ever-increasing obligations they face in a profession that continues to be subjected to increasing and unprecedented scrutiny.
- Police Officers encounter or confront people who are armed, dangerous, drunk, high, criminal or gang associated or people who suffer from some form of mental health issue every single day of the year in every single City across our great Country. The majority of these encounters are resolved peacefully and professionally.
- Police Officers will continue to shoot and kill people who present deadly threats to them or anyone else they’re sworn to protect. That’s part of their job and responsibility as keepers of public safety.
- Police will be justified in an overwhelming number of these cases.
- Police may not be justified in all cases.
- Police Officers are not perfect.
The potential to use deadly force is a hazard of the job all Police Officers must accept to have courage enough to lace up a pair of Police boots.
It’s a question they ask you long before you ever step into recruit class. “Do you think you have the ability to take another human beings life if circumstances required you to use deadly force?”
If you say “yes” you better mean it.
It truly is a dirty job.
In a commendable departure from the inflammatory sensationalism most crime reporters seem inclined to indulge in, Winnipeg Free Press Crime Reporter James Turner recently wrote an article titled, “Looking Beyond the Taser Frenzy – To me, inquest shows Police are clearly not a bunch of Quick Draw McGraws.”
The story reported on evidence arising from an inquest into the July 2008 death of a Winnipeg Aboriginal teenager who died after being tasered by Police when he refused to drop an edged weapon. The Police Officers had been dispatched to the area to search for a suspect who had broken into a motor vehicle.
In the aftermath of the shooting Police were accused of using excessive force and racially profiling the teen.
Conclusions Turner emphatically rejected.
- The WPS Homicide Unit Supervisor no longer completes the Officer Involved shooting synopsis report. Those duties are now performed by an independent affiant assigned to the case.
- Toronto Police Constable James Forcillo was charged with 2nd degree murder in connection with the fatal shooting of Sammy Yatim. Those charges are pending before the courts and he is presumed innocent until such time as he is proven otherwise. Forcillo recently returned to work in an administrative capacity pending the outcome of his case.