Police in Canada are facing growing scrutiny after two women – both members of ethnic minorities and both suffering mental health problems – died following encounters with officers.
The deaths come as tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in the US in protest over police violence against racial minorities, prompted by the police killing of George Floyd.
Justin Trudeau said on Thursday that his country was watching events in the US with “horror” but added: “We know we have an awful lot of work to do here in Canada. As a government, we have taken steps towards that, but … there is much more to do.”
The scale of that challenge has been made clear this week by a string of incidents which have raised questions over Canadian’s law enforcement officers’ capacity to de-escalate tense situations – many of which disproportionately involve people who belong to ethnic minorities or suffer mental health issues – or both.
Regis Korchinski-Paquet, 29 an Afro-Indigenous woman living in Toronto, died on 27 May after her mother called the police pleading for her to be taken to a mental health facility after they’d had an argument.
Some time after, five officers arrived at the family’s 24th-floor apartment, Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death from the balcony.
Police have not released details of the incident, pending an oversight investigation, and details of the incident remain murky, but Korchinski-Paquet’s family have said they believe she would still be alive had the police intervened differently.
On Thursday morning, police in Edmundston, New Brunswick responded to a mental health call involving a Chantel Moore, a 26-year old Indigenous woman.
Police said that when an officer arrived, he was attacked by a woman with a knife, and “had no choice but to defend himself” – shooting her repeatedly.
The premature deaths of the two women, both apparently during mental health crises, have focused a spotlight on police training to safely de-escalate tense situations.
“For generations, we’ve basically asked the police to do more and more,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in policing and social inequality. “We now have the police performing functions that other social institutions or organizations could be handling more effectively. And I think mental health is a key one of those.”
Much of the culture and training for police officers is a source of the problem, say criminologists.
“Police are trained to respond to complex social situations with force,” said Alexander McClelland, an activist and post-graduate researcher at the University of Ottawa. “And the idea of applying violence in a complex social situation and expecting a nonviolent outcome is very confusing. It’s not logical. Policing just adds more to the crisis.”
As well as the two deaths, other recent examples of apparent police abuse have been reported, including an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who hit an Inuk man with a police vehicle and the case of a Covid-positive homeless woman with mental health issues who was detained in Toronto by six police officers.
Such incidents have fueled growing calls to divert the billions of dollars of police funding to preventive and responsive social programs.
According to estimates, Canadian taxpayers pay C$15.1bn on police services across the country, including C$1bn on police in Toronto.
“I think we could spend that money and much more imaginative ways, including having mental health supports become first responders instead of police,” said McClelland. “Why do you need someone with a gun to respond to a public health crisis unless you’re assuming that person will use the gun at some point?”
Victims of such encounters are overwhelmingly likely to be members of racial minorities. In Toronto, black residents are 20 times more likely to be shot dead by police.
“Far too many Canadians feel fear and anxiety at the sight of a law enforcement officer,” Trudeau said on Friday.
“Discrimination is a lived reality for far too many of our fellow citizens. It is something that needs to end, and it’s something we’re working on,” he said.
Toronto police have pledged to improve training for de-escalation and the use of body cameras and the mayor has admitted there is systematic racism within the city. But experts argue that police officers are often not the appropriate people to deal with such situations.
“The police are here to deal with issues related to crime disorder to promote public order and public safety,” said Owusu-Bempah. “But we really need more robust services to deal with people who are suffering from mental health crises. Prevention would be much better.”