LORINC: Have Toronto police learned anything at all about de-escalation?


The shouting about Paris and the ugly political aftermath has made it difficult to hear almost everything else that’s taking place in our world, including issues and incidents that would otherwise be commanding close public attention.

One particular overlooked topic I want to focus on today has to do with the central issue in the Sammy Yatim shooting trial of Constable James Forcillo, now underway. That is the question of whether the Toronto Police Service has systematically absorbed the lessons about his death, and those of several other emotionally distressed individuals killed by police in recent years.

The Forcillo trial last week featured a cross-examination side-show by defense lawyer Peter Brauti, who has sought to discredit a crown expert witness called to offer evidence about appropriate use-of-force. Brauti, of course, is doing what he’s paid to do, but the defense will have much more difficulty in explaining away the TTC surveillance video evidence, which shows that the vehicle operator exhibited a great deal more sang froid when dealing with the troubled young man than did the police who arrived on the scene and shot him almost immediately.

The dynamics have echoes in a very recent case reported last week by CBC, which described how Rodrigo Almonacid, who had locked himself in a bathroom, ended up being beaten and tasered so badly by police that he died of his injuries. His wife called 911 after the couple had a late night fight, according to family members, and the police responded with a squad in riot gear. The family’s lawyers have since released cell phone and surveillance video showing, among other things, Almonacid’s extensive injuries and the decimated bathroom where he was holed up.

The case in under investigation by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, and the family’s allegations haven’t been proven in a court.

The incident appears, so far, to have one very important parallel to the Yatim shooting, which is that the police who responded encountered an individual inside a contained, and containable, space (streetcar, bathroom).

When I wrote about police shootings of distressed people in The Walrus a year ago, several of the experts I spoke to, including veteran law enforcement officers with extensive experience in de-escalation, said that the priorities facing first responders in those situations are: make sure the public and first responders are safe; take the energy out of the conflict using calm dialogue; and, most significantly, use time as a tactical resource.

In other words, if a suspect can be physically contained in a way that ensures public and police safety (e.g., inside an apartment or enclosed space), no one needs to set a deadline for resolving the situation or taking the person into custody. Once police have secured the scene, it is in everybody’s interest, especially the suspect’s, for the police to slow things down. That allows the individual to tire him or herself out, or, better yet, talk it out with a crisis intervention team specialist (either a psychiatric nurse or an officer trained in those kinds of skills).

That’s what de-escalation is all about.

De-escalation, according to Toronto police, has become the new normal.

In mid-September, when absolutely no one was paying attention, senior police officials presented two lengthy reports (here and here) to the Toronto Police Services Board, outlining how the force has responded to the detailed recommendations of an unprecedented coroner’s inquiry into three police killings (Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klibingaitis, and Michael Eligon), as well as an exhaustive review of lethal force on emotionally distressed individuals, by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci.

These exhaustive external critiques focused on de-escalation and specialized training in how to deal with people suspected to be in distress (e.g., someone suffering from schizophrenia who is off their meds and acting in a menacing way). “[T]he importance of de-escalation in police encounters can not be over-emphasized,” Iacobucci wrote.

While both Iacobucci’s report and the coroner’s inquest received extensive media coverage, the police response, presented publicly after more than a year of deliberation, generated little news. Canadian Press ran a short item that began, “Toronto police have undergone a ‘cultural change’ in dealing with those in crisis in the wake of two reports that scrutinized the force’s policies, Chief Mark Saunders said Thursday.” Both CP and The Toronto Star noted the box score, saying the vast majority of the recommendations – 140 between the two – had been implemented.


I’d say some healthy skepticism is in order, especially in light of the fact that deeply troubling incidents, such as Almonacid’s death, continue to occur.

Indeed, it’s not so difficult to show that the TPS’s response has more than its fair share of top-spin.

Case in point: Iacobucci recommended that the TPS develop a “crisis-intervention team” approach modeled on the ground-breaking work of the Memphis PD (described in my Walrus feature). This philosophy, which has been adopted across in thousands of agencies in the U.S., requires that a significant contingent of first responders receive specialized training (i.e., over 40 hours) in dealing with distressed people. In many law enforcement agencies that have adopted the Memphis model, CIT officers also have the ability to take charge of a scene where the police have been called in response to someone acting erratically.

Here’s Iacobucci’s specific recommendation (#43) on this matter: “The TPS develop a pilot Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program, intended to complement the MCIT program, along the lines of the Memphis/Hamilton model, in the aim of being able to provide a specialized, trained response to people in crisis 24 hours per day” [emphasis added].

But the TPS response to #43, outlined by Deputy Chief Mike Federico, merely concurs “in part,” saying the TPS has “invited” members to take the specialized training given to the small contingent of officers who belong to the “mobile crisis intervention teams” (MCIT), which are pairings of cops and psychiatric nurses who respond to situations which involve a distressed person. There’s no information on how many cops have taken the training, what kind of training budget has been allocated for those who do volunteer, or how they’re screened for this kind of duty.

What’s more, the TPS has come in for criticism in the past because the MCIT teams only operate between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. In the year-plus since Iacobucci’s report came out, the TPS hasn’t expanded that window. In other words, if your family member is having a scary psychotic episode at 2 a.m., you’re shit out of luck and have to pray that the cops who arrive on the scene bring with them the experience to de-escalate the situation instead of harming or tasering the person (a frequent outcome when the police encounter emotionally disturbed people).

In light of recent violent incidents (here’s another, now the subject of a $5 million lawsuit), I’d say the TPSB, which merely received the two reports at its September 17 meeting, should ask an independent third party to assess just how thoroughly the TPS has internalized a set of reforms meant to confront the chronic nightmare of police violence against marginalized or distressed people.

Indeed, Iacobucci had that thought long before I did, and bruited the prospect of an outside evaluation within five years as the very final recommendation in his review. The TPS response was nothing if not revealing: it says it “concurs” and then points to all sorts of progress reports that the Service publishes on a regular basis. The TPS, however, is tellingly silent on the prospect of an outside evaluation; the Board, it seems, didn’t bother flagging that tiny but critical omission, so central to Iacobucci’s goal of bringing real accountability to this aspect of policing in Toronto.

But as Saunders assured Torontonians in September, de-escalation is now standard procedure. Everyone just move on; there’s nothing here to look at, folks.

photo by Ashton Pal

One comment

  1. You ask the question “Have Toronto police learned anything at all about de-escalation?” Obviously not as we see once again.

    In the case of Sammy Yatim the cop who killed him was obviously out of control. Plain and simple. Thank goodness for the video otherwise nothing would have happened. Cops are all liars who will protect their own 100%.

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