Information scarce on police use of lethal force

The recent shooting death of a teenager at the hands of the NYPD and subsequent protests in Brooklyn have again put the spotlight on police use of lethal force.  In Canada, the issue has been a controversial one, in light of the G-20 protests and reports of questionable police conduct.

The Special Investigations Unit

When citizens shoot each other it gets a lot of media attention, but when police kill civilians, information is scarce.  The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) investigates allegations of officer misconduct in Ontario. The SIU is called in whenever a person is injured or killed in the course of police activity. The unit provides statistics on cases it investigates, but often many details are left out.

Search for the Toronto Police Service 2011-2012 from the SIU Website
Search for the Toronto Police Service 2011-2012 from the SIU Website

For instance, the above table provided by the SIU shows incidents that occurred in 2011-2012 in the Toronto Police Service. However, details of the cases and the outcome of the investigations are provided for only a few selected cases. Looking at SIU’s annual report for  2010-2011 (the latest report available on its website) shows that of the cases discussed in detail, the SIU found the police at fault in only one case – a non-fatal custody injury.

The SIU has made controversial decisions in the past. In 2010, it ruled that no criminal charges would be laid in light of the claims of police brutality at the G20 protests in Toronto, despite finding that excessive force had probably been used in at least two cases.

In 2009, police shot 14 people in Canada

Statistics Canada also tracks civilian deaths involving police officers. Canadian deaths sorted by causes. In 2009, the latest year data are available, 19 people died at the hands of police.

Of these,  14 involved a firearm discharge. In more concise terms, 14 people were shot and killed by police officers in Canada in 2009.

According to the SIU, 7 of these deaths occurred Ontario.

Lack of coverage and grassroots organizations

Although these statistics are available to the public, information on specific cases is difficult to find. Canadians must rely on SIU reports which do not contain full details of every case and highlights only a few case studies selected by the unit.

Often, it is not until the media picks up on a specific case, as in the recent ruling  by a Toronto judge to stay the charges against a man who was the victim of excessive force by the police, that details about police conduct come to light.

When the media fails to highlight such cases, grassroots organizations step in to ensure that such incidents do not go unnoticed.

22 Octobre is an advocacy group based in Quebec. It holds vigils and protests in remembrance of people who have died after involvement with police. The group also keeps records of these incidents, with the pictures and information on the deceased available on its website.

The militant group describes police shootings as “murder” and calls for victims to speak out about their lost loved ones.

Noting the lack of public information available about police-caused deaths, 22 Octobre is currently looking to gather more information and conduct further research on this subject.

Another advocacy group, Coop de Media Montreal, summarizes the concerns of the victims of police killings on its website.

“Many other police-related incidents in Montreal and across the country have left the families of the victims seeking answers about why their loved ones died and how come the police officers responsible for their deaths have not been sanctioned,” the website states.

The group is calling for civilian oversight of police activity similar to Ontario’s SIU.

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