When Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality ignited cities across Canada, many people were startled by the grim personal stories that poured out daily, and the extent of fear generated by a force whose motto, “to serve and protect,” seemed increasingly hollow.
As a correspondent in conflict zones and countries where the rule of law was routinely flouted by its enforcers, I was all too familiar with unrestrained use of force against innocent people—and grateful for my Canadian citizenship, But working on a documentary film on the abuses perpetrated by police in my own country brought new, and often shocking, perspectives.
I was not na´ve about the treatment of black and Indigenous people by Canadian police forces, and shared the belief that reform was long overdue. But spending months learning in sometimes horrifying detail the stories of those—not all of them racialized—who had suffered the trauma of police brutality and wrongful arrest opened my eyes to the urgency of the need for reform.
The film, titled The Arrest, produced by Martin Himel, was recently broadcast on TVO and focuses on six wrongfully arrested people we interviewed and filmed. What we learned from them, and their lawyers, is how complicated reform of police can be. And up to now, how little political will there has been to tackle its complexities.
How, I wondered, could “officers of the law” justify throwing a recently-hospitalized black female social worker to the ground on the unwarranted suspicion that she might have been an accomplice to a robbery? Or blacken the eyes of a 67-year-old engineer who had refused to stay inside his home while his neighbour’s house was burning?
What excuse was there for handcuffing a black single mother and her young children after breaking down the doors of their house in a military-style raid? Or arresting a middle-aged seamstress on a noise complaint, then stripping and humiliating her when she was seized with a panic attack in her cell?
Tim Harper, a co-author of the comprehensive book on reform of Toronto police, titled Excessive Force, concluded, “policing over the years has fallen into patterns that can be best summed up by ‘because we always did it that way’.” Breaking through that inertia, bias and entrenchment is crucial if reforms are to succeed.
But if anything is to change, we must go beyond merely commissioning new studies and recommendations, which often end up as no more than thoughts and prayers. Some concrete steps include:
1. More thorough screening of recruits: an observer who sat in on police training said that the class divided into idealists, who genuinely wanted to serve and protect society and aggressive Sylvester Stallone wannabees attracted by the use of force. The danger is that the aggressive cadre would be dominant because they would intimidate the idealists. Clearly, better psychological screening is needed to weed out those with anger management and aggression issues and officers who have a history of aggressive behavior, as well as to scrutinize the records of those up for promotion.
2. Better academic training and education: first, to continue shifting emphasis from force to community policing, where police are part of the community, understand its problems and have a stake in it. They also need more than a few days basic training on dealing with people who are mentally ill, yet account for the majority of police calls. (However, police can’t be substitutes for mental health workers, who should be funded and hired in sufficient numbers to support and coordinate with police.)
More legal training is also needed so police fully understand—and observe—citizens’ rights. This increased legal and mental health training is a tall order, which would take more than the current 24 weeks of instruction that Toronto police recruits undergo. Currently, those who aspire to senior positions may enroll in university degrees in policing, but they are not mandatory.
3. Better weapons and defence training: The use of lethal force “constitutes the largest component of the training (of) new officers,” says Excessive Force co-author Alok Mukherjee, former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. When police shoot to kill in circumstances that are clearly unwarranted, it’s because they’re trained to protect themselves above all. They’re trained to shoot in any “threatening” situation, aiming at the biggest body mass, which is often lethal. But they also lack training to give them confidence of hitting a part of the body that isn’t life-threatening, when they feel compelled to fire, but their lives aren’t in imminent danger. And there should be better training in the use of Tasers, which can also be lethal weapons.
But police also need more psychological training to subdue or talk down unarmed but aggressive suspects—who are often in a mental health crisis—without using deadly weapons. And they need training to control non-resisting suspects without using potentially deadly or injurious force. Adequate self-defence training to tackle would-be attackers who are not lethally armed should also be mandatory.
4. Ending the “police culture” of impunity: some liken it to a biker gang where “you always cover for your partner,” however unlawfully he behaves, as in the tragic case of George Floyd. Body cameras are a vital tool in ending this prevailing culture, but they must not be turned off while on active duty. This may reverse the unwritten rule that police will not testify against each other.
The systemic nature of impunity also plays a part in enabling bad behavior. Police know that not only will their colleagues cover up for them, but the union and their superiors will too. So people who are wrongfully arrested and brutalized are dragged through expensive, traumatic litigation if they fight back—with taxpayers footing the bill for the police and little, if any, penalty for the perpetrators.
In our film, Pamela Markland’s eight-year battle for justice for herself and her children was an extreme example. It’s hard to imagine how much of “our” money was spent on lawyers hired to mitigate her case.
Adam Nobody and Steve Spencer have also battled through the system for years, after suffering physical, emotional and reputational damage from their encounters with G-20 police violence and humiliation.
5. Recruitment of racial minorities and compulsory anti-racism training focusing especially on Indigenous and black communities—something that was glaringly obvious long before the recent protests. Indigenous people, I learned, almost never defend themselves against wrongful arrest, because they take police abuse and injustice as a matter of course and prefer to “admit” guilt in a plea bargain than go through a process they believe would end badly and only invite more abuse.
Not all the necessary reforms are in the bailiwick of policing. In Ontario, the criminal justice system itself contributes to excessive arrests that would not stand up if challenged in court, but can damage those arrested in ways that are serious and long lasting. That is compounded by the Ford government’s $133 million cuts to legal aid, which deny more people who lack resources and legal counsel to defend themselves.
Ontario records for recent years show that around 35% of all criminal cases have charges stayed or withdrawn. So thousands of people who are arrested, jailed—and often considered “guilty until proven innocent” by employers, landlords, family courts, professional bodies and even friends—ultimately have charges dropped before a trial even happens.
Ontario’s high number of charges are dropped, says the John Howard Society, because “police decide whether to lay charges, whereas in most of Canada they must have the agreement of a Crown attorney to do so. Prosecutors are much less likely to charge where they see no likelihood of conviction, but police have many incentives to lay charges even if there isn’t nearly enough evidence to convict in court.” Yet the damage done to victims of wrongful arrest may be irrevocable.
These are only a few of the reforms that should be made if we are to end abuses of justice in Canada in the 21st century. The alternative is already clear. All too often, says lawyer Davin Charney, who defended many of our wrongly arrested subjects, “win or lose, when you are arrested, the system makes sure you lose.”
Olivia Ward is associate producer of The Arrest. She was a former bureau chief and correspondent for the Toronto Star in the former Soviet Union, Europe, the Middle East and the United Nations.