By PATRICK HUNTER
Former justice of the Supreme Court, Frank Iacobucci, has submitted his report on the police shooting death a year ago of Sammy Yatim as was requested by Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair.
Justice Iacobucci’s mandate included a review of police tactics, weapons and other resources that are employed in confrontation with, as Iacobucci puts it, people in crisis. His aim, as directed by the Chief, was not to find fault but to determine what mechanisms are in place and what can be done to ensure that such confrontations do not result in the loss of life.
Our community has seen our share of such deaths going as far back as Lester Donaldson. The birth of the Black Action Defense Committee was brought about by these killings which were made more painful because the officers involved walked away blameless. It left the kind of taste in the mouth that Black lives were not important. Coroners’ inquests, several commissioned reports that included a review of Black community/police relations, did not seem to change anything. More lives were lost, including those from other communities. The outcome in many instances was that the individuals were essentially unarmed or armed with a weapon that would more than likely require close contact to do harm. Nevertheless, as often happens, it was revealed that some of these individuals had mental health issues.
As always happens in the wake of events like these shootings, the question of how much effort was put into the de-escalation of confrontations and whether officers are appropriately trained to handle them. Training of officers in these areas, specialized units which would include personnel familiar with responding to persons with mental health issues and access to professionals in the mental health field, are some of the recommendations Iacobucci proposes. One recommendation that concerns me, and which he cautions, is the possibility of sharing mental health information about an individual whom, I would assume, has had previous contact with the police. Given recent revelations about information sharing among police services, here and abroad, this could be problematic.
Overall, many of Iacobucci’s recommendations seem useful and while implementation may not be easy in some cases, or may never come to fruition especially in the way they should, they could go a long way in reducing lethal outcomes.
Chief Blair has indicated that “the report will not gather dust” and that he has started to set up an implementation advisory committee and has designated one of his deputies to oversee the implementation.
One of the concerns shared by others at the news conference was the lack of attention focused on racialized communities. Once again, one is left with the sense that whatever is dictated or suggested is common to all people. In 2009, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) released a report that recognized that mental health issues manifest … among racialized people in different ways.
In improving mental health services for immigrant, refugee, ethno-cultural and racialized (IRER) groups, the researchers point out that: “The exact recipe for mental health varies from person to person and community to community. However, there are clear pressures on IRER communities such as migration and racial discrimination which, though common, cannot be considered normal life stresses.”
Understanding how mental health issues affect our community and, which I believe, are considerably underestimated in our community, in not unlike understanding the roots of youth violence.
Those of you who are regular readers of this column (and I thank you) know that I have issues with the concept of “diversity” as commonly used in Toronto and in Canada. To me it is a “cop-out” – a loophole concept that is created to appease those who do not like the term “racism” and the need to have that issue on the table at all times. “Visible minorities” is also in that same category, although, at the time that it was created, its usefulness was appropriate. It has since lost that sense, giving way to “diversity”.
We have heard politicians and others place this mantle of “the most diverse city in the world” on Toronto. I have never been able to unearth the criteria on which that claim is based.
Policing is a difficult job. In theory, a police officer could face a life-threatening situation daily. Fortunately, Toronto is a largely peaceful society where life-threatening confrontations between the police and citizens are more rare than not.
But, from a racialized resident’s point of view, encounters with the police in Toronto have been, and continue to be – shall we say – a challenging one for the most part.
On the face of it, we have a largely White police service. Based on the reported history of encounters with police, it would seem that there is reason to believe that race plays a part in some of those confrontations, for example, that Black men are likely to react more violently. An incident recently in New York in which a Black man died at the hands of the police as a result of an outlawed choke-hold would seem to support that notion.
When asked if the racialized community angle will form part of his advisory committee on implementation, Chief Blair resorted to this notion that “it is a diverse city” and that he had consulted these communities in the past.
That, for me, is not good enough.
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