Leadership long overdue in teaching alternatives to lethal force
(TORONTO – June 29, 2016) Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé today called on the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to save lives by requiring police across the province to use de-escalation techniques in conflict situations before resorting to lethal force.
It is time for officials to “review the human costs of their legacy of inaction, and to finally make this issue a priority,” the Ombudsman notes in A Matter of Life and Death, his office’s latest systemic investigation report. He recommends the Ministry “use its legal and moral authority to take the lead” on this issue – and that it act “to require all officers to use de-escalation techniques in all situations of conflict before considering force options, wherever tactical and safety considerations permit.”
UPDATE: Immediately after the Ombudsman's report was released, Minister Orazietti announced that all recommendations were accepted and will be implemented. Watch his response to the Ombudsman's report.
The investigation, conducted by the Special Ombudsman Response Team, found that training at the Ontario Police College and the legislative regulation, guideline and training model on which it is based “are all below the standards that citizens should expect in a modern, forward-looking jurisdiction,” Mr. Dubé says.
Not only is the basic police training course in Ontario among the shortest in Canada, it is focused more on how to use weapons than on finding alternatives, the Ombudsman found. There is no clear definition of de-escalation, no requirement that officers update and upgrade their skills on the job, no consistency among training delivered by police services across Ontario, and no monitoring of results of such training.
“Ontario officers have plenty of training on how to use their guns, but not enough on how to use their mouths,” Mr. Dubé says in the report. “We trust police officers to use their judgment in dangerous situations to protect our lives and their own. They should have better tools to deal with people in crisis, to better determine when to use force and when to de-escalate; to preserve lives.”
The Ombudsman’s 22 recommendations are based on some 95 interviews with police trainers, Ministry officials, experts in de-escalation and mental health, in Ontario and elsewhere. Ombudsman staff also reviewed the full spectrum of police training, government responses to numerous inquests and related reviews, and information offered by police services – a few of which also invited them to observe their de-escalation training sessions. As well, the investigation team met with loved ones of more than a dozen Ontarians who were killed by police in recent years, to hear their concerns and suggestions for reform.
“There is ample evidence and advice indicating what must be done,” Mr. Dubé says, stressing that “the Ministry is the only body with the scope and legal authority to bring about real change.”
He points out that the Ministry has a long history of enacting provincewide standards in matters of public interest – for example, it did so in 1999, imposing strict limits on high-speed police chases. Just last year, amid strong public concern about police street checks, or “carding,” it consulted on and drafted a new regulation in a matter of months. It also authorized expanded police use of Tasers in 2013, as recommended by several inquest juries – many of which also called for more de-escalation training.
Included in the Ombudsman’s recommendations are specific proposals to update the legislation, guidelines and model for training police in the use of force, to bolster de-escalation training at all levels, ensure consistent and updated training across the province and derive lessons from incidents where de-escalation techniques have worked well.
Launched in the wake of the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a Toronto streetcar in July 2013, the investigation reviewed the province’s response to similar incidents dating back to 1988 – including well over 100 coroner’s jury recommendations calling for improved police training. Since the launch of the investigation, 19 more people have been killed in police shootings in Ontario.
The Ombudsman is an independent officer of the Ontario legislature who resolves and investigates public complaints about provincial government bodies, municipalities, universities and school boards – and recommends solutions to individual and systemic administrative problems. The Ombudsman’s recommendations are not binding, but are generally accepted; almost all recommendations stemming from the 35 SORT investigations conducted since 2005 have been implemented, resulting in such reforms as a more secure lottery system, fairer property tax assessments, upgraded screening of newborn babies and improved assistance for Ontario police officers dealing with operational stress injury.