Stop the killing: Fatal police shootings in Canada

Too many people are killed by police in Canada. Here is what we should do to change that.

The shooting of Don Dunphy has polarized the province, provoking strong reactions both condemning and defending police actions. His death is a tragedy that many feel should have been prevented, and that has damaged public confidence in our police force.

When I encounter a controversy like this, my instinct is to seek out quantitative data that helps put matters into a wider context. With that goal in mind, I have tried to answer the following questions: How often are people killed in confrontations with police, and under what circumstances? As we shall see, Canada does not have a very good track record. A different approach to policing could save many lives.

How many people are killed by police?

I could not find any nationwide statistics, but some provinces have agencies that collect provincial stats.

In Ontario, there are about 7 people shot and killed by police in an average year. Around 25 die in custody, often due to drug or alcohol overdoses and lack of medical treatment.

In Alberta, there are about 5 people shot and killed by police per year. Given the province’s population, this is quite a high number.

In British Columbia, the stats only go back a year and a half, but combining them with Wikipedia reports, there seem to be about 4 fatal police shootings per year.

Québec, whose police force has a reputation for violence, does not have a civilian agency that investigates police shootings, so I do not have good stats. From Wikipedia, we do know there were at least 3 people killed in police shootings in Québec last year.

If we assume these provinces are representative for the country, then there are about 25 fatal shootings by police in Canada per year, and perhaps twice as many who die in custody. This compares to an average of 2 officers per year who are murdered on the job.

In Newfoundland and Labrador we seem to average a fatal shooting every six years or so. Relative to our population that is about half as often as the Canadian average, so by that standard we are doing better than most.

How does this compare to other countries?

Let’s see how Canada measures up to other developed countries.

Total fatal police shootings/law enforcement homicides per year

United States              930
Canada                        25
Germany                       8
Australia                        5
United Kingdom              2
Japan                             0

(from various secondary sources: Daily Mail, Economist, Guardian, Guardian)

Everyone knows that the United States is a horror show. Less well known is that Canada is much worse than most other developed countries.

To do a fairer comparison, we should consider fatal shootings relative to population.

Fatal police shootings/law enforcement homicides per million people

United States                2.9
Alberta                         1.4
Canada                         0.7
Ontario                         0.6
Nfld & Lab                     0.3
Australia                       0.2
Germany                       0.1
United Kingdom             0.04
Japan                            0.0

Again we see that Canada — Alberta in particular — does not compare well to most other developed countries, the United States excluded.

Part of this disparity is due to different levels of violence that police are faced with. If we consider homicide rates, we get a similar rank ordering.

Number of homicides per 100,000 people per year

United States                4.7
Alberta                         2.3
Canada                         1.6
Ontario                         1.3
United Kingdom             1.0
Australia                       0.9
Germany                       0.8
Nfld & Lab                     0.7
Japan                            0.3

But that cannot be the whole story, because Canadian police kill more people in one year than UK police kill in 10, despite our countries having homicide rates in the same ballpark. This seems to be the result of different approaches to policing; in particular, most police officers in the UK do not carry guns. The typical British ‘bobby’ is expected to carry out her duties armed only with speed cuffs, a baton, and tear gas or pepper spray. Firearms are restricted to special units whose members have lots of experience and special training. If police in Canada were to adopt this approach, a lot of unnecessary tragedies could be averted.

But you may ask: If UK police do not carry guns, doesn’t that place them greater risk? Apparently not. Not a single British police officer has been murdered on the job since 2012.

Circumstances of the “typical” fatal police shooting

In my review of news reports of fatal police shootings in Canada over the last year and a half, they seem to fall roughly into three categories.

In about a third of cases, police action seems clearly justified, either because the shooting victim had already killed or injured somebody, or was shooting at police.

In another third of cases, police are responding to reports that a person is behaving erratically, often wielding a knife or a club (though not always), and are shot after threatening or scuffling with police, but without causing any serious injuries. In many cases the victim is reportedly suffering from depression or psychosis.

The remaining third seem to be cases where, in my opinion, police use excessive force in apprehending suspects, mistake a pellet gun for a lethal threat (twice!), mistake the identity of the victim, or screw up some other way.

Reforming the police

It seems to me that most of these deaths could have been avoided. Surely non-lethal force is enough to subdue a lone man with a knife or club, especially when multiple officers are on scene. I agree with Canadian Civil Liberties Association that police training and regulations should be overhauled to place greater limits on the use of firearms. I also agree with the Globe and Mail editorial board that firearms should not be standard issue equipment for all officers, but restricted to special units for special situations (such as apprehending armed gunmen, providing security against terror attacks, or executing arrest warrants against violent offenders). We will probably never know what really happened in the final moments of Don Dunphy’s life, and we should be careful about second guessing the actions of a police officer who felt his life was in danger. But far too often, introducing firearms into volatile situations precipitates the very violence that police are supposed to prevent.

The British invented modern policing in the early 19th century, establishing the ‘Peelian Principles’ of policing by consent. One of those principles is “to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective“. British police seem to adhere more closely to these principles than Canadian police do. Perhaps we should look at them as a model for reform.

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