Teaching police how to handle people in crisis (The Star)

August 15, 2022

15 August 2022

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé has renewed his call for standardized and mandatory training for police officers in deescalation for dealing with people in crisis.

The Star
August 15, 2022

It was as macabre a piece of video as this city has seen, security footage from inside one of Toronto’s iconic streetcars, made the more disturbing for its familiarity.

July 27, 2013. An 18-year-old man, after causing a disturbance that empties the streetcar, brandishes a knife. Police officers arrive in numbers, stand outside the streetcar’s front doors, guns drawn, aimed.

In the background, on Dundas St. W., near Grace St., can be seen onlookers, parked cars, passing cyclists.

Within about 50 seconds of arriving on scene, a police officer shoots Sammy Yatim three times, then follows with another burst of six bullets. An officer used a Taser on the young man.

Const. James Forcillo was later convicted of attempted murder in the shooting but acquitted of the more serious charge of second-degree murder.

If ever there was a screaming call for police to develop a different way of responding to reports of citizens in mental distress, it was this.

It’s hard to imagine anyone in authority watching the video and not saying, Never again! Not in this city. Not on my watch.

If only it were so.

Almost a decade on from the police killing of Yatim, Ontario’s Ombudsman Paul Dubé is still demanding, in his latest annual report released, that standardized and mandatory training for police officers in deescalation be put in place for dealing with people in crisis.

Yatim was not the first Toronto citizen in extremis to die at the hands of police, and he was not the last. Yet progress in improving police procedures has been grudging since his death.

Dubé described the call for deescalation training as “a perennial issue,” saying “policing and corrections have historically been areas in which it is extremely difficult to drive change.

“Experts and coroners’ juries have called for more deescalation training and a new use-of-force model for decades,” Dubé said.

“I made these same recommendations in 2016 (in his special report ‘A Matter of Life and Death’) and they were accepted, but progress has been painfully slow.”

But the ombudsman seems nothing if not dogged. Last week, he again raised the prospect of yet another probe into the lack of provincial action to “shine the light on that issue.”

Dubé said when issuing his 2016 report that he wasn’t blaming police officers, but their training.

That training, he said, makes a priority of “drawing their weapons and yelling commands.” And in most cases involving people in crisis that is about the least helpful response.

“We don’t need another study or consultation to determine that police training on deescalation is inadequate,” Dubé said back then. “It’s not just a matter of long overdue leadership, but of saving lives.”

The office of Solicitor General Michael Kerzner issued a statement after the ombudsman’s report was released which would hardly fill Dubé with confidence that the government is getting the message.

“The solicitor general is confident that continued improvements to programs are being successfully implemented in a timely manner,” it said.

Which translates, roughly, as, ‘All good here, pal.’

How much more heartening it would have been had Kerzner mustered the courage to say publicly that Dubé was crystal clear, that the government heard him, and that the ombudsman will never have to make the same recommendations again.