Are police officers supposed to be scary?

If you’re Ontarian, or even Canadian, you’ve probably heard about Sammy Yatim, the 18-year-old who was shot dead by police a couple weeks ago on an empty Toronto streetcar. You’ve probably heard that he was armed with a knife, that he was acting threatening, and that he was shot at nine times. (Eight of the shots are said to have hit him.) And you’ve almost certainly heard that Constable James Forcillo has been charged with second-degree murder in Yatim’s death.

In the car with my four-year-old, a piece came on the news about a protest being held by the families of people who had been killed by police. (This kid has really started listening to the news, and often comments on what he hears.)

“Killed by police?” he said. “The police don’t kill, they rescue.”

That’s verbatim. Broke my heart.

So I commenced an awkward explanation: police officers carry guns, and sometimes when they’re on duty, they use them… and guns can kill people, so sometimes that happens.

He thought about that. “Mummy, I never want to meet the police in person.”

“Oh, honey, you don’t have to worry if you meet a police officer. They’re not going to hurt you. They’re here to keep you safe.” I reminded him that his Uncle R is a police officer and a really nice person – that most of them are.

But he insisted: “I just don’t want to meet them.”

It makes me think of the little kids at my school who cried with fear when the police officers visited. Mind you, there are children who cry and dramatize over any old thing (my own almost-kindergartner included), but it still seems sad. There are local officers who come to the school to talk about bicycle safety, and they’re always lovely and sincere, and yet some kids are scared.

 US_Navy_060830-N-8907D-010_Officer_Diane_Branch_with_the_Chesapeake_Police_Department_takes_children's_fingerprints_during_the_Ident-a-Kid_program_held_at_Naval_Medical_Center_Portsmouth

I still remember the time a police officer visited my class when I was a kindergartner myself. He wore a blue shirt and had a fancy hat, and mostly I remember his shoes were very, very shiny.

My husband and I were recently discussing this topic. Sean has been both a corporal in the Canadian Armed Forces and a correctional officer in an Ontario Detention Centre. He knows some things about uniforms and weapons and boys’ clubs and the psychology of violence. I asked his perspective on all this. This is what he had to say.

I think it’s right that the officer was charged with murder. I read that 15 officers have been charged with murder since 2008, all acquitted. The charge has never stuck to any of them, but the consensus is that the video evidence is overwhelming in this case.

It has been true forever that there’s an omertá* feeling within police departments all over the world. It’s disconcerting, especially in a democracy, that people who are given, by society, the goal of protecting society, and the right to use deadly force when necessary, can abuse it with impunity. Of course, because we’re human beings, there are bound to be times when deadly force is used inappropriately, but there need to be consequences for that, just as there are for anyone else who uses deadly force inappropriately.

But within the police department it seems there is a different standard. Let’s say I – a normally law-abiding citizen – used deadly force on someone who was going to rob my house. In Canada, I would be charged with murder. (Maybe not in the States, I’m not sure, because their gun laws are crazy,** but in Canada I would be charged with murder.) And a police officer would come and arrest me.

But if a police officer kills someone who appears threatening, no other officer goes up and says “You just committed a crime, you’re under arrest.”

In the Yatim case, there were six officers there. It is supremely obvious from the video that the constable acted way outside legal use of force precedents. So in any other situation – if he had been a civilian – the police officer nearest would have turned around and arrested him for murder. But in this situation, even though all of them were there and they all witnessed it, none of them turned around and said “Whoa. What are you doing? You’re under arrest for murder.”

Why not?

If we give you that responsibility, you need to uphold it. It’s a big thing. You’re paid well, you’re given this massive responsibility and the power that goes with it, but you need to understand that if you go into that kind of work, you’re going to be held up to a particular standard, or at the very least, the same standard as the general public.

Police officers are not soldiers. Soldiers are ostensibly in combat zones surrounded by potential enemies. A police officer is not. But we’re getting into this mentality of the “war on crime”, the “war on drugs”, etc., and many police officers I think have that mentality of going into a war zone, of being surrounded by bad guys who are out to get you, and that’s simply not the case in a place like this.

But if you see everyone as a bad guy, of course you’re going to shoot the kid with a knife. On an empty streetcar. Nine times. Absolutely ridiculous.

I think that if he’s found anything but guilty, there are gonna be riots – as there should be. We cannot allow police officers – those to whom we give the power to use guns – to kill other people casually in the course of their duties. We cannot allow them to utilize that force without major consequences if it’s not done properly.

There’s no excuse for this. The kid was cornered on an empty TTC car. Nobody – not the officers, nor any member of the public – was in any danger. So there was zero reason to do this. NONE. The situation would have been different if he’d visibly had a gun out; then yes, the officers could reasonably say they didn’t know if he would point it at them and fire. But it’s a knife. I mean, by all accounts it was a little jackknife. For God’s sake. He probably couldn’t even throw it at you and do any harm.

Why couldn’t those six officers just wait him out? It seems to me, whenever I see videos of police officers nowadays, they no longer seem trained to deescalate. They actually seem trained to do the opposite. They always seem to talk to people in this overly authoritative voice, not quite yelling but very strong, and to present themselves as bigger than they are, and they sort of move forward as a group, deliberately intimidating.

And in certain situations that’s warranted, but it seems they use these tactics in every situation. And that’s not cool. It’s not their job. And that’s the thing that police officers need to realize. Their job is there because the public allows it. The scariest thing would be – and we seem to be heading in this direction – a feeling among police officers that they have a right to be here, whether the public says so or not. And that cannot ever be the case. Because that’s how fascist states and police states come into being. As soon as a police force realizes “Hey, we’re the only ones around with guns, so we can do what we want,” then you get Egypt. You get Syria.

{I asked him his opinion on the weapons used by police officers in Ontario.}

They carry way too many rounds. First of all, it’s heavy – I’m not sure why you’d want to carry all those rounds – and second of all, it’s completely unnecessary. Just like the all-black uniform, the hip holster. Again, it’s part of this uniform that looks intimidating and scary: “We’re here for business, and our business is kicking ass and taking names…” and this sort of macho B.S.

And yeah, it’s totally unnecessary. We’re not in Beirut, we’re not in South Central L.A. Even there, I’m not sure how necessary it is. But certainly in Toronto and Southwestern Ontario, all the places I grew up, it’s not necessary. You’re never getting into a firefight where you’re going to fire all – whatever it is – fifteen rounds in your pistol and drop a mag and slap another one in to fire fifteen more rounds.

Unless you like to fire nine rounds into lightly armed young boys… in which case, maybe you do need all those rounds.

The key here is awareness and training. Officers need to be trained to deescalate situations. I was actually commended a number of times as a jail guard, by my captains, because I wasn’t the type of guard who went in, chest out, looking for trouble, wanting an inmate to say or do something so that I could come down hard on him. I learned how to talk, how to deflate potential trouble. I don’t know, maybe other guards thought of me as a wimp or something, but my goal and job there were to always have things as peaceful as possible. And that meant not being macho. Not having an attitude of “I’m gonna kick your butt.”

Police officers seem scary now in most situations. They don’t seem approachable or friendly anymore. The “serve and protect” motto seems to be rarely remembered. I would not approach an officer in Toronto and ask for directions somewhere, even though that’s what people used to do all the time. You’d look for a friendly neighbourhood police officer if you needed help. But nowadays, I don’t know. I would be intimidated and I wouldn’t want to do it.

2010_G20_Toronto police
Another occasion when use-of-force went haywire: Toronto Police and Ontario Provincial Police officers near the intersection of King Street West and University Avenue during the protests surrounding the G-20 Summit in Toronto in 2010 – from Wikimedia Commons.

I have so many questions. Is there really an increase in police violence, or does it just feel that way right now, since there was also a fatal police shooting (of Steve Mesic) in Hamilton this past June? And we still freshly remember the Taser death of Robert Dziekanski – and the investigation that seemed to go on and on, but also featured police overreaction. Do we just hear more about it because now every other person (at least) has a pocket video recorder?

In this CBC article on the police’s use of force in Hamilton, it’s said that violent crime is down, but use of force is up. Assuming that’s true, is there a good reason for it? Do we actually know which came first? Is the visible use of force effective in deterring crime? Are would-be criminals less likely to mess with authority when officers look more forbidding?

Certainly my husband would argue that meeting machismo with machismo leads not to calm, but to desperate behaviour – particularly violence.

I watched the video of Sammy Yatim’s shooting for the purpose of writing this post. What I saw was fear. Police officers who yelled at the nervously shifting figure on the streetcar from their phalanx position on the sidewalk, pointing their guns in an urgent stance, as if they were expecting a small army to exit the vehicle and attack. Then three shots. Then six more. All from the same side.

There was nothing about that group of officers that conveyed a feeling of control, of calm, of “We’ve got this,” even though there were six of them dealing with a single kid. They should have felt complete confidence to simply walk in and do their job.

Everybody knows you don’t put guns in the hands of twitchy, nervous people.

Is it true that police officers are feeling more fear? Is it because guns and gang violence are infiltrating Canada to a greater extent? Or is it because of the “war” terminology that’s been all the rage, especially since 9/11? Is it because of that new SWAT-team look that someone somewhere in some government decided was better? Are insidious expectations changing outcomes?

Does it suck to be a police officer in this position? How are you supposed to be the friendly neighbourhood police officer AND a soldier in the War On Everything? How are you supposed to serve and protect the public as well as intimidate and subdue the enemy? Those are totally different people skills.

Or maybe all this has to do with a few isolated incidents, and there is really no issue at all.

I have great admiration for police officers. I know I could not do their job. I couldn’t hold up to the stress of being faced every day with the most troubled and needful members of society – and being expected to know what to do with them.

I don’t know where we are headed, or how worried we should be. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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* I had to look this up: “As practiced by the Mafia, a code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to authorities.”

**Reminder of how crazy those American gun laws actually are: today I was asked to sign a petition to ban guns in Starbucks locations across the U.S. What the what?? People bring their guns to Starbucks??? NOT A JOKE, apparently. (And it makes the customers nervous. No shit.) No offense, Yankees, but we Canucks can’t process this. At Starbucks up here, we’re like, “Wear a shirt and shoes, please. Have a lovely day.”

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