ABORIGINAL JUSTICE REFLECTION: Justified use of force, part I
2 March 2011
ABORIGINAL JUSTICE: Justified use of force, part I
by Christine Klassen
â€śAuthority to use force separates law enforcement officials from other members of society...â€ť (â€śCanadaâ€™s National Use-of-Force Framework for Police Officersâ€ť The Police Chief magazine August 2010)
Kenora resident Helen Proulx was trying to slit her wrists with a small knife when a neighbour called the police on 7 June 2010. The lone responding officer commanded Proulx to drop her weapon. She started to walk towards the officer and the officer fired two shots, wounding Proulx in the arm and shattering her pelvis. The neighbour saw Proulx fall face first onto the sidewalk. Police charged Proulx with assault. Two years earlier, on 16 February 2008, Toronto resident Byron Debassige had been singing and asking for change when the police arrived. He had stolen three lemons and then pulled out his pocketknife when the shop clerk chased him onto the street. Two constables confronted him on the path at Oriole Park. When they commanded him to put down his juice bottle, he tucked it under his arm and pulled the knife out of his pocket. The officers drew their guns and shouted at him to stop and drop his knife, but Debassige kept walking toward them. They fired four shots, hitting him twice in the torso. He died from his injuries. In both cases, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU)* found the shootings, â€śjustified.â€ť
Proulx was suicidal and Debassige suffered from untreated schizophrenia. Both were intoxicated. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) issued a policy statement about crisis intervention for police a month after Debassige was shot. It says, "Once mental health issues are suspected or identified, much greater emphasis needs to be placed on the use of de-escalation techniques through communication rather than physical control and use of any type of weapon." De-escalation techniques, it adds, should be "very different from the communication techniques generally used in police interventions...[They] require listening skills and ways of interacting that may be out of sync with police practices of command and control."
The National Use of Force Framework diagram characterizes the practices criticized by the CMHA. It categorizes possible officer responses to various levels of perceived resistance or non-cooperation. While it leaves much to the judgment of individual officers, it requires them to take control of the situation as quickly as possible. Thus, police officers are almost obliged to respond to any kind of non-cooperation with some kind of force.
Maybe these police officers were within the bounds of the National Use of Force Framework and are therefore in that sense "justified." But, as I read these news stories, I am alarmed by a justice system and a social Framework that leads police officers into tragic use-of-force escalations, when non-lethal and more effective interventions are available to them.
Police officers for the most part, do not want to seriously injure or kill people. However, the police uniform and gun limit their options. When dealing with mentally ill individuals, police who are trained to react with deadly force make possible â€śsuicide by copâ€ť for people seeking to end their own lives.
Police officers must find better ways of responding to people who are in mental health crises, ways more in line with the CMHA recommendations laid out in March 2008. If the authority to use force isolates police officers, then we must ask what it will take to bring them back into a community of support and accountability.
*The SIU investigates cases where police allegedly injure or kill civilians.