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.


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.


* 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.”



10 thoughts on “Are police officers supposed to be scary?

  1. Darci says:

    I’m not sure how to feel about all of this. I guess I’m conflicted, as, maybe I should be I guess. I think that there are those people (men and woman) who go into police work because the are the “macho” type and have the need to exercise their power trip mentality. On the other hand, I’m not sure any human (not suffering from mental illness) really wants to take a life. I think I keep reminding myself that these officers have families too and although that is part of the risk of the job, I just don’t know.

    So I guess my thoughts (living in a city where police shootings rarely happen) and having contact with several officers (one of which is a close friend) that I would have to go with the old standard “there’s one in every crowd”. I do agree that there is a thick “blue line” and a sense of family within police departments, but to categorize “all police” or “the police departments” as being overly forceful.. just doesn’t feel right to me.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Thanks for your comment, Darci. I’m also conflicted, because like I said, the police officers I know personally are great people whom I admire a lot. I’m very grateful to them for doing their job well. I really hope – and believe – that those officers with the potential to kill non-criminals are few and far between. But for better or for worse, it is true that every person is an example/ambassador for his or her profession, and that the public perception of the police, whether accurate or not, matters to society – and can have a major influence on it as well. It’s our job as citizens to be aware of that and raise questions if needed.

  2. Mama says:

    I think that there is definitely a trend among police in Canada to use more force. Whether it’s EVERYWHERE among police I wouldn’t care to say, but it’s certainly more prevalent than it was even ten years ago. It’s still true that if I were in a position of someone like, say, Sharlene Bosma, I would want the police to exist, to be there to call, to take up the investigation, to stay on the job, and to arrest the murderer(s). I guess what I’m saying is, When the police are doing a good job, the job we want them to do, we need and want and respect them. When they develop the kinds of mentalities Sean has described – “at war”, overly macho, intimidating, daring someone to start trouble – we fear and hate them and want to get rid of them. It doesn’t take a lot of complex thinking to understand that everyone will be better off with the former.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Yes. I do think the police, at least in our region(s), do a very good job overall and make more of a difference than we even know. And as I said, I don’t know if there is actually more force used, or just more accountability/publicity about it. I can’t imagine wanting to get rid of police, but it’s important to make critical thinking a priority when it comes to such an influential, even iconic sector of society.

  3. Robin Sanders says:

    The part “How are you supposed to serve and protect the public as well as intimidate and subdue the enemy?” made me think of England where they leave these two philosophies to two different groups. Last I heard (and this may have changed as GB seems to be going down-hill on the civil liberties front) was that regular officers in England did not carry guns, and were more on the serve and protect side of things, and if a situation arose, they would call for backup, and a van load of highly armed and trained SWAT type officer would show up to intimidate and subdue.
    Maybe it’s time that we try this type of system and let our officers stop being torn between the two.

    • Amy says:

      It’s easy to criticize them for a job you can’t do. I made a comment once watching a show with Ryan saying “can you imagine a job where you might not come home”. He looked at me and said “yeah I can”. He is a police officer, a kind strong and compassionate one much like many of the officers I have the pleasure of working with. You critique their uniforms and their tone but they need the uniforms for their safety, a bright uniform makes you a target and voice without authority makes you seem incapable. You only see an officer on the worst days of your life and they are truly there to help. They are held accountable for their actions, trained yearly, and I doubt any officer would consider the choice to use deadly force as casual. The news portrays a good story of all these macho gunslinging officers but they don’t tell you about the thousands of other calls they go to in a year and the people they help. There were 594 murders in 2007 alone and the number is decreasing, so let me tell you if it’s between my husband coming home or the criminal fighting him I know who I will pick. Every time.

      • dilovelyadmin says:

        Amy, thank you for your well-put comment. It is good to have your perspective, as a person who is both part of the police work force and married to an officer. You’re absolutely right that at times like this, there is a lot of emphasis in the media put on the “gunslinging”, and that the countless good things that police officers (and dispatchers!) do every day go unreported.

        I was thinking about that the other week as I waited in the ER with the baby – there was a man in there (who incidentally reeked of alcohol) waiting for his son, who had apparently had a pretty dire emergency, and there were a couple of police officers with him. They were on a first-name basis with this man, and had obviously been called to whatever the emergency was. They were so compassionate with him, and I thought to myself, “People rarely talk about how much patience police officers need to have, but at times like this it’s clear they use a lot of it.”

        I also appreciate the explanation that the bright or light-coloured uniform is seen as a target; I’m just wondering why this has only become the case in the last decade or so. It just makes it seem like in the past, they (whoever makes the decisions about uniforms) were going for visibility (maybe so that officers were easy to find if you needed help?) and are now going for camouflage. I hope you’re right that this makes them safer; if so, it’s worth looking a bit more intimidating to the general public.

        To be honest, I think that if it had been your husband, or an officer like him (calm, laid-back, caring), dealing with the Sammy Yatim or Steve Mesic situations, those men – neither of whom was a criminal – would still be alive. Those situations called for someone who could diffuse panic instead of increasing it – since I truly believe that panic, not criminality, is a police officer’s worst enemy. A calmly authoritative voice can be just as effective as a loudly authoritative one, if not more so, and some officers are experts at this.

        I think it takes a lot of courage to do a job in which you deal regularly with violent people, some of whom see you as the enemy. I know I’d worry a lot about Sean if he were a police officer, for that reason. Unfortunately the safety standards in his line of work (manufacturing) are lower than those for police officers, with more Ontario workplace fatalities by a factor of more than seventy. So although I try not to think about it, it’s actually scarily likely for him not to come home from work too.

        I apologize if either my words or Sean’s have offended you. The intent was not to impugn individual officers, other than those responsible for unnecessary deaths. The intent was to generate discussion, since if we, as a society, cease to question those in positions of authority, we are in trouble.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Robin, that seems like a system that makes a lot of sense. It really does strike me as two different jobs, with different strengths needed. Thank you for pointing that out.

  4. R says:

    Hey there,

    I can appreciate your points of view on this topic even if I do disagree with a large portion of them.

    The only thing that I wish to say right now in regards to these posts is that we shouldn’t be judging the officers without the full process taking place. In the Yatim case I can’t speak to having first hand knowledge of the events but I would like to see the evidence be produced in the court process. Nobody can account for officer perception aside from the officers involved. I can agree that the video doesn’t look good but still there is a lot that we cannot see. We can’t let the media decide what we think and all the details that have been released have been very one sided. When everything is released in the court process I hope that we can see a different story but we won’t know either way until then. Just because the SIU (or police) lay a charge doesn’t me that the accused is guilty.

    In regards to the Mesic case I can’t discuss it at this time. When the SIU concludes their investigation I would be more than happy to speak about it. What I can say at this time is that I know the people involved and have heard details regarding the case. Any officer I know would have reacted the same way although I hope I’m never required to. It would be great to be able to talk everyone down and that is the case 99% of police interactions but sometimes its just not possible without injury to officers or other members of the public.

    I’m fine to just agree to disagree (with at least S’s views) on the topic and leave it at that.

    Love you all and excited to see you!


    • dilovelyadmin says:

      R, thank you so much for weighing in.

      Your statement “We can’t let the media decide what we think” is right on the money. It’s really important to remind ourselves of that, especially when media interpretations are mostly what we have access to. It’s not the whole story. (I’m invested too, being part of a profession that is often portrayed negatively by the media.)

      I also hope that in these cases, and any similar ones past or future, it can be shown that there are/were excellent reasons for the way things went down. After all, we all want to have solid faith in the police and the judicial system as a whole, and I do think we can be proud of what we have here in Canada.

      Love you all too. It was great to see you.

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