Blue Line


March 15, 2013  By Joel Johnston

1039 words – MR Part 3

Looking back and moving forward

by Joel A. Johnston

Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officer Joel Johnston has been Blue Line’s defensive tactics editor since 1994 and a consultant and researcher to both police and government agencies. He is recognized for his no-nonsense approach to use of force in the Canadian context. In the final of this three part series he reflects upon the evolution of use of force standards and equipment in Canadian policing.

{Watershed use of force moments}

Rodney King video: The March 1991 “beating of Los Angeles motorist” Rodney King was captured on a personal camcorder and delivered to the media. George Holliday videotaped the incident from his apartment in the Lake View Terrace neighbourhood of Los Angeles, contacted police about it a couple of days later and then took the tape directly to KTLA TV, which broadcast it in its entirety.

The video created instant media uproar. Selected portions were aired repeatedly, turning what would otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill, violent, soon-to-be-forgotten encounter between LAPD members and an aggressive, resistive criminal suspect into perhaps the most widely viewed and talked-about incident of its kind.

The tape was subsequently broadcast globally and the incident sparked the greatest riots in the history of Southern California. It was the dawn of the pending “YouTube era”. Trainers had been alert to this emerging trend but it wasn’t until this incident that the message was really driven home.

Now if any incident makes it to video, it almost certainly is shown on TV news and the Internet. The community immediately judges it, largely based upon how it is presented to them – and the presentation is frequently by agenda-wielding reporters absent all of the facts. The 2007 Vancouver “YVR Taser incident” is a clear case in point and may represent Canada’s own “Rodney King moment.”

North Hollywood bank robbery & shootout: Two heavy-armed, drugged and armoured bank robbers entered the North Hollywood Bank of America in February 1997 and committed a violent robbery, then engaged police in a protracted gun battle. Eleven officers and seven civilians were injured, there was massive property damage and the firing of more than 2,000 rounds of armour-piercing ammunition at police and anyone who got in their way.

Police were stuck returning fire with handguns whose rounds could not pierce the body armour the suspects were wearing, even if they could hit them. Officers actually seconded weapons from local gun stores in an effort to level the playing field with these criminals. Eventually the robbers were killed, but at great expense.

This incident spawned the patrol carbine movement across North America, allowing police to get on an equal footing with the criminal element.

Columbine High School massacre: Two male students of a suburban Colorado high school went on a well-planned rampage of their school in April 1999, killing 12 students and one teacher and injuring another 21 students before following through on their suicide pact. Law enforcement applied its traditional response to this situation – contain the school and wait for SWAT teams to arrive. This took too long and the situation was over long before SWAT was able to enter.

The flawed response was seen for what it was. Active killer situations demand an immediate response by the closest, fastest responding officers – but they need training and weapon systems capable of ending these violent incidents as soon as possible.

Despite the fact school shootings had been occurring for years prior to this incident – including several notable Canadian incidents (Centennial High School, Brampton, 1975; Ecole Polytechniqe, Montreal, 1989; Concordia University, Montreal, 1992; etc.) Columbine represents the genesis of the “Active Shooter” response training program across North America.

Mumbai massacre: This violent terrorist attack against Mumbai citizens and visitors began Nov. 26, 2008 and lasted for three days. Teams of heavily-armed, trained, well-prepared young men – members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant organization – set out to kill people in targeted locations with assault weapons and bombs. The final toll was 164 people killed and 308 injured.

One terrorist was captured and interrogated, telling officials much of what they learned about the mission and who was behind it. He was subsequently hanged in 2012. This attack strategy presented yet another problem that the traditional police response was ill-equipped to handle. It spawned the Multiple Assailant Counter-Attack Tactics (MAC-TAC) programs across North America that prepares quick response, heavily-armed teams to move to hotspots immediately to neutralize active killers.

All of these incidents (and others like them) occurring around the globe continue to shape the policing response, as they should – but we ought to really be looking to get “ahead of the curve” rather than continually playing catch-up post-facto. We have a vast complement of talented, educated, driven trainers across Canada with the ability to get in front of trending issues in law enforcement.

Policing will be increasingly challenged with growing public (dis)order problems. As economies struggle, the unyielding problems of extreme violence, mental illness and substance abuse will continue to produce bizarre, difficult-to-control manifestations – think of the “bath salts” behaviour that we are now witnessing.

The policing “profession” must strive for excellence – and shun past status quo benchmarks. The likes of Dr. William Lewinski and the cadre of resources at the Force Science Research Institute at Minnesota State University are revealing relevant information and valuable research. Police can use it to predict and prepare for emerging trends and issues.

It is up to each and every Canadian police agency to leverage the scientific and human resource advantages under their noses to elevate policing to the profession of excellence that it can be – if not in the areas of public safety and officer safety, then where?

The policing model will change dramatically over the next couple of decades. This will be driven principally by economics. Government budgets will not bear the state of affairs that currently exists. We will see a tremendous growth in “tiered policing” and the security industry. The success of these changes will largely depend upon training.

Proper, innovative, ahead-of-the-curve, science-based training will make the difference. The pieces of the puzzle are scattered about out there – they simply need to be assembled by astute leaders.


Use short bio from May article (Part 2).

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