Blue Line


February 23, 2016  By Joel Johnston

A great hue and cry arose to completely overhaul police training after Cst. James Forcillo’s second-degree murder trial. Something is wrong! Police officers are running amuck! The legal pundits began their all too predictable rhetoric.

Then -Toronto Police Service (TPS) Chief Bill Blair “commissioned” the Iacobucci report one month after the politically-charged shooting of Sammy Yatim. Entitled and released one year after the incident, it was a predictably reflexive political response to the strong community backlash over the shooting, similar to the Braidwood Reports after the 2008 Vancouver Airport Conducted Energy Weapon (CEW)-related death.

To put the Toronto incident into perspective, Yatim, a full-sized young man, pulled his penis from his pants with one hand, brandished a 12cm switchblade with the other, and attacked a female passenger on a streetcar. He then forced the terrified passengers to run screaming to the back of the car.

According to media sources, evidence suppressed at trial indicated Yatim’s life was not going in the direction he had hoped. His alarming behaviour resulted in numerous 9-1-1 calls. Yatim was not cooperative, taunted police and refused to surrender his knife. Police ordered him not to step forward, intending to contain him to the streetcar and deploy a Taser to the scene.


Yatim did step forward, was shot and fell to the floor. This should have been the end of the incident but Yatim was shot several more times as he lay prone. One month later the TPS member was charged with second-degree murder (and subsequently with attempted murder) and was found guilty on the latter charge.

The Iacobucci Report refers to police handling of “people in crisis.” Iacobucci defines this as “a member of the public whose behaviour brings them into contact with police either because of an apparent need for urgent care within the mental health system, or because they are otherwise experiencing a mental or emotional crisis involving behaviour that is sufficiently erratic, threatening or dangerous that the police are called in order to protect the person or those around them. The term ‘person in crisis’ includes those who are mentally ill as well as people who would be described by police as ’emotionally disturbed.'”

The report’s stated purpose is “to consider how, going forward, we as a society can prevent lethal outcomes.” It offers some platitudes to the TPS but, by virtue of its mandate to recommend changes that may prevent deaths or injuries during encounters with people in crisis, focuses on everything the service hasn’t done or needs to do. There is mention of a broken mental health care system whereby police become the defacto frontline mental health care workers.

In the report Iacobucci stated: “It is clear that police are part of the mental health system – they are the front line mental health workers for many of the most dangerous encounters. Preventing deaths includes preventing the crises in the first place, as well as helping police to deal with crises better. One of the key themes of this Report is the need for inter-disciplinary cooperation, learning and teaching, involving not only police and mental health professionals, but also mental health consumer-survivors.”

Unfortunately, police do not have the opportunity to counsel people in crisis in a relatively calm state, the stable comfort of an office or under sedation and possibly restraint in a clinical setting. When these folks are so far down the road behaviourally that people become alarmed or scared, they call for the police to “handle it.”

“As I emphasize in the Report,” writes Iacobucci, “there will not be great improvements in police encounters with people in crisis without the participation of agencies and institutions of municipal, provincial and federal governments because, simply put, they are part of the problem and need to be involved in the solution.”

The retired Supreme Court justice laments that, “in many ways, I have found this reality the most distressing societal aspect of my work on the Review. The effective functioning of the mental health system is essential as a means of preventing people from finding themselves in crisis in the first place. There is not much I can do through my recommendations to remedy the applicable problems in the mental health system, since I can recommend changes only to the TPS. But the basic and glaring fact is that the TPS alone cannot provide a complete answer to lethal outcomes involving people in crisis.”

There it is – the proverbial nail-on-the-head. Police cannot (and should not have to) provide a complete answer to lethal outcomes involving people in crisis. The mental health care system is so broken that the consequences have been flushed down to the only 24-hour public servants left to clean up the mess – and if the outcome is less than desirable, they make for an easy scapegoat.

{“Police handled it wrong”}

The following questions have actually been publicly posed in deaths involving police and people in crisis: “Why did it take so many cops to wrestle with one man?”; “Why didn’t the cops Taser him and get him under control sooner?”

Alternatively, when a Taser was used: “Why did the cops Taser him, why didn’t they wrestle him under control? There were four or five of them at the scene!” And of course, “Why did the cops shoot him, why didn’t they Taser him?”

These types of questions are not anomalies, they are publicly flaunted in virtually every circumstance where the outcome was less than desirable.

Certainly questions must be asked – and indeed will be when a citizen is seriously injured or killed in an encounter with police. Investigative processes are multi-tiered and rigorous but the relentless media and public criticism of police actions in every instance has become a tiresome and demoralizing narrative. It is not helpful to the cause of improving police response and serves only to deflect from the root causes of people being “in crisis” in the first place.

I strongly advocate constantly re-visiting training and technology, staying abreast of developing trends and employing proven emerging strategies, tactics and techniques but the Iacobucci Report makes a misstep in its stated goal of “zero harm and zero deaths.” This is not possible, misleads the public and places police in a losing position from the outset. It’s akin to setting a zero concussions goal in the NFL, a zero accidents goal for all motorists or zero harm or deaths goal for doctors. Goals like these lack meaning.

Iacobucci’s goal has already fallen by the wayside, I’m sure – quite possibly on the day it was written. It would be better and more productive to focus on achievable benchmarks and tangible, potential goals. Canadian police have a long-standing objective of “endeavouring to resolve 100 per cent of all encounters with the public at the level of professional officer presence and communication.”

There are approximately 200 concussions annually in the NFL – because of the nature of the game – large, strong men moving fast while wearing equipment designed to withstand hits. They play a game which explicitly creates deliberate collisions. These will continue to occur despite improving helmet technology, rule changes and evolved coaching.

There are about 165,000 injuries and 10,000 deaths in traffic accidents annually in Canada, despite improved road technology and design, vehicle safety features and the diligent enforcement of traffic laws.

Some 23,000 Canadians die from preventable causes in acute care hospitals and more than 70,000 suffer preventable serious injuries at the hands of the medical profession. The only way to achieve these kinds of “goals” would be to stop playing football, driving vehicles and delivering medical services.

Police officers swear an oath to uphold the laws as written and are obligated to do a job which involves some two million criminal code contacts with the public annually. Make that three million if you include street checks, traffic stops, suspicious circumstances, noisy parties, annoying drunks, and other citizen contacts, that number balloons to some 30 million.

Vancouver police deal with more than 30,000 calls a year involving mentally ill subjects (it’s about 20,000 a year in Toronto). One out of every five contacts made by police involve mental illness and/or substance abuse, according to Statistics Canada; that’s about 500,000 calls a year.

Canadian police fatally shot 14 people in 2014 and rarely fire their weapons at the mentally ill and/or substance abusers whom they interact with. That’s about .00000066666667 per cent of the citizens whom they contact annually – so how deficient can their training be?

Both teams in this year’s Super Bowl were stacked with highly-paid, trained and motivated athletes. They turned the ball over six times (two interceptions and four fumbles), accumulated 18 penalties – several egregious – and achieved a sub-14 per cent 3rd-down conversion rate in one hour of play! Most players make more in a single season than police officers in their entire career. All receive significantly more training, more often, yet they make mistakes and face circumstances where they cannot overcome an opponent’s resistance.

Canadian police officers are trained by some of the brightest and best people in the profession. Dynamic simulation (decision-making & performance based) training, tactical communication programs and less lethal response options – including expandable batons, pepper spray and the ARWEN rifle – were all introduced in the early 1990s.

CEWs and bean-bag shotguns were also implemented. These are not “alternatives to lethal force” – they were intended to be used before the imminent need to stop a lethal threat presented itself.

Mental health nurses have teamed up with trained police officers in some Canadian cities. Extensive crisis intervention and de-escalation programs have been introduced, and officers are now trained on mental illness and substance abuse. Police training in Canada is not static and hasn’t been for years. It continues to evolve when new technology, research and emerging trends become evident.

Police officers operate amidst a constant struggle for training time and resources and a broken mental health care system. They deal daily with crime, confrontations, violence, misery, grief, rage, mental illness, substance abuse – hardly human beings at their best – but use physical force only about 0.06 per cent of the time.

To be clear, Canadian police officers successfully resolve encounters about 99.94 per cent of the time. This rate would be difficult to match in any industry or profession.

Some folks are possessed of the erroneous notion that police can employ a special set of magic words, expressions and/or behaviours to eliminate the need to use deadly force, regardless of circumstances. People also seem to forget that the central wildcard in the equation is the person officers are dealing with.

The person must be willing, and in some way capable, of communicating and not endangering anyone for there to be any possible chance of a peaceful resolution. To highlight the saliency of these issues, here’s a couple of incidents that I dealt with over the years:

• A woman with a knife was behaving in a bizarre and alarming manner in the hallway of her East Vancouver apartment building in 2001. I and three other members of the emergency response team and a specially-trained crisis intervention, de-escalation trained officer responded. An ambulance was on standby.

We contained the woman to her suite, cleared the hallways and safeguarded the other residents. Clad in a bathrobe, the woman had an animated, determined, yet vacant look. She screamed an unintelligible monologue when appearing in the hallway. Our crisis-trained officer tried in vain to establish contact, reduce anxiety, offer help and create rapport.

The woman would emerge in a rage and vigorously stab the walls, causing an explosion of dust and huge chunks of plaster, then run back to her suite and slam the door. Similar sounds emerged from inside. This went on for well over an hour. All efforts at communication failed. The neighbour across the hall was locked down, others were evacuated or locked in their suites.

Ultimately the woman emerged clutching a silver crucifix and holding a steak knife. She made eye contact and ran screaming directly toward us with a goal-oriented look and the knife raised over her head. She appeared suicidal. At this point loud, repetitive verbal commands were issued to “stop” and “drop the knife.” She didn’t even seem to hear them and was hit with an ARWEN round and TASER, then taken into custody.

The ambulance crew immediately moved in to render first aid. She was hospitalized for treatment and later released.

•A distraught, suicidal female with an edged weapon barricaded herself in a Downtown Eastside rooming house in 2013. As usual, there was a heavy call-load that day. Three officers attended. One watched the second floor.

One officer was a trained less-lethal operator and arrived with a “beanbag” shotgun. This was good – not ideal for a 10′ x 10′ room and very narrow hallways – but better than no less-lethal. Vancouver police officers, like many others, were apprehensive about carrying Tasers after the fallout from the infamous Vancouver Airport incident. It would have been a better less-lethal option under the circumstances. Nevertheless, we were able to locate the woman’s boyfriend and obtain her name and a bit of a back-story.

Having contained the suite, I began talking – but most importantly, she began talking to me. My communication tactics training was valuable. I talked calmly to her, offering to listen and help. We spoke for 10 or 15 minutes and she agreed to surrender her weapon and leave her room. I was literally able to put my arm around her as we walked down to a waiting ambulance.

The lessons from these two incidents, which are mirrored across Canada hourly, are important:

  1. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to de-escalate a situation if a subject is unwilling and/or incapable of communicating. If the person is contained and no one is in imminent danger,communication can be attempted for as long as necessary – and usually is. The weapon the subject possesses becomes an important consideration in all cases as it will directly affect the mode of communication that may be employed.

  2. If subjects are endangering the lives or safety of anyone, force becomes unavoidable. If they’re engaging in imminent deadly force behaviour and less-lethal alternatives are not available, options are few and they will likely be shot.

  3. If a subject is willing to talk and no one is in imminent danger, de-escalation becomes possible – and is frequently achieved. Force is avoidable.

In the first incident, the woman did not immediately attack anyone. She needed to be contained and her neighbours safeguarded. Communication efforts were skilled, concerted and persistent – but ultimately failed. She was either unwilling or incapable of communicating.

We were fortunate to have a variety of less-lethal options when she emerged. Had there been only a lone police officer, or two without less-lethal or sufficient time to react to her deadly force behaviour, she very likely would have been shot.

In the second incident, we were fortunate because our subject was willing and probably wanted to talk. My verbal tactics were no more skilled than the officer in the first incident but the subject was receptive. The situations were remarkably similar but force was avoided because our subject created that opportunity.

The Canadian policing profession puts the NFL and other industries to shame from a performance perspective. When police do use force – particularly when someone is seriously injured or dies – there are numerous layers of oversight . Proactive early-warning systems in most agencies deal with everything from human resources issues to incidents involving force.

Commissions independently investigate complaints against police. Yes, police are given a tremendous responsibility, and some would say power, but the profession is subject to scrutiny in a manner unparalleled in society.

The broad-sweeping statement that “it’s time that police training in Canada changes” is preposterous, tantamount to political or professional grandstanding, or borne of ignorance. It is astonishing that police use force so infrequently given the circumstances under which they operate. Officers are held to account when they do step out of line, as they should be. They are professionally sanctioned, fired, criminally charged and often sued.

People making loud assertions about the state of policing and training should not confuse Canada with what may be occurring in other jurisdictions, and best be careful they don’t cause “the baby to be thrown out with the bathwater.”


Joel Johnston is a retired 28-year veteran of the Vancouver Police Department who served in many positions, including walking the city’s notorious “Skid Row,”  Control Tactics Coordinator,  ERT Squad Leader and Training Coordinator, and Provincial Use of Force & ERT Coordinator. He has contributed to since 1994 and is the principal of Joel Johnston Consulting Inc., a training and use of force consulting firm in North America. Contact:

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