Confronting Canadian policing’s deadly record

February 7, 2023
Canada deaths in police custody
Indigenous woman Chantel Moore was killed by police in Canada in 2021. Photo: Flickr/public domain

Tyre Nichols, a young Black man, was beaten to death by Memphis police officers in the United States on January 7. The day the horrific video of police brutalising Nichols was released, and over the following days, police forces across Canada put out statements decrying the violence, condemning the actions of the officers involved, and even calling for justice and accountability.

There was something missing from these condemnations, however — some self-reflection and accountability. For example, Vancouver’s police chief condemned the Memphis killing but did not acknowledge that his force killed three people last year, two of whom were Indigenous. Ottawa police did not acknowledge the two people killed by their force last year. And that’s the thing. Literally all of the major forces releasing statements have themselves killed civilians in the last year.

An underlying message of the police statements is that Canadian police are different — “thank goodness it does not happen here”. But it does, even if police killings in Canada receive less attention than they do in the US. Killings by police receive to little attention, and condemnation, in Canada. The public is largely unaware of the extent of what happens in our own backyard. Police statements read like a public relations attempt to keep it that way.

Police-involved deaths

Could you accurately guess how many police-involved deaths there were in Canada in 2022? 10? 20? 50? More? You could be forgiven for not knowing that in 2022 there were at least 117 police-involved deaths in Canada — the most in nearly a decade that I have been tracking and documenting these deaths. There were at least 104 police-involved deaths in 2021.

One obstacle we face in analysing and discussing police-involved deaths is that after all these years, and waves of protests over police violence, there remains no formal and systemic documenting and public reporting of police killings in Canada. There is no national government database. The work tracking police-involved deaths is left to be done by criminologists and other academics, community groups and journalists. My own documentation is based on police reports, reports from oversight agencies, media accounts and, in some cases, communications from families.

The inconsistent character of public reporting means too that national numbers presented for police-involved deaths represent an undercount. For example, the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) of British Columbia has listed 28 cases where deaths occurred as “closed without public report”. We know next to nothing about these.

One record, published by The Canadian Press in early December, based on available information from police and independent investigative units, found there were 87 people shot by police in Canada between January 1 and November 30, last year, and 46 of those were fatal. They identified race in only 23 cases, with more than 40% involving Indigenous people and a quarter being other racialised people. My own research documented another five people killed by police in December, including two Indigenous people.

Shootings are only part of the story. Based on available records, there were at least 26 deaths in custody (these only include people in police custody, not correctional custody), 14 deaths in police vehicular pursuits, and eight deaths in falls with police present last year.

Facing reality

Significant, socially necessary, discussions about the role of policing in our society have become central parts of public discourse, and civic politics. Communities deserve to know the extent and circumstances of lethal police force, locally, and on a nationwide basis in Canada. Information should be readily available — for family members and loved ones, community members, researchers, journalists and politicians. Those who have lost loved ones deserve nothing less.

There has been a great deal of discussion, understandably, of policing deaths, given the six officers killed in duty this past year. Police associations have taken political steps in response — calling for harsher bail conditions and tougher sentences. They obviously have complete records of officer deaths on duty. Yet, for some reason we are loathe to discuss the far greater numbers of police-involved deaths and are apparently content not to develop a formal, publicly accessible national database of such deaths.

Discussing the role and impact of policing means facing the realities of policing, including lethal force, its contexts and consequences. The extent of lethal force is often underestimated and this means that the concerns of communities speaking out against police violence can also be downplayed.

The Nova Scotia Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in their statement: “Every day that a police officer reports for work, we carry the expectations associated with our solemn duty, entrusted to us by our fellow citizens, to keep people safe. Every officer is accountable for their actions, and must not accept actions of themselves or others that do not reflect the duty we carry.”

These expectations are contradicted by the extent of police killings in Canada; even more by our failure to confront the fact.

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