It is difficult to know how we should react to the recent shooting of an 18-year-old in Toronto. We are told the teen was holding a knife and had been using it to threaten people, although he was alone in a streetcar when police shot him. The shooting was recorded by a bystander and posted online.
The video appears to show a young man who was clearly not in his right mind either due to mental illness or drugs, who was presenting no obvious danger to anyone at the time he was shot.
That said, it is unlikely the brief video tells the whole story. The camera may never lie, but it certainly can mislead. There will be other details that emerge during the course of the investigation. Those details may paint a different picture of the tragedy, or they may indicate a serious need for changes in police protocols and training.
The only point on which everyone can agree at this time is it was a tragedy. Whether it was a needless tragedy that could have been prevented has yet to be determined.
Most of us are aware police officers these days face situations ordinary members of the community would prefer not to think about. There are drugs out there that can make people behave in a very violent, irrational manner. Someone higher than a kite on crystal meth cannot be reasoned with and is impossible to control. If he takes it into his mind to attack someone – even a police officer, or group of police officers – lethal force may be the only effective response.
The problem with meth and other street drugs is twofold – first, they are extremely common, and second, the person using them does not wear a sign. To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, there is no message “writ large on the brow” of the guy brandishing the knife to say whether he is a mental patient having a psychotic episode, a distraught but basically nice person, or a meth head about to explode.
Is the small knife in his hand the guy’s only weapon, or does he have a loaded gun in his pants pocket? Can the guy be “talked down” without endangering bystanders or fellow officers? Will a brief delay to assess the situation or get a mental health team to the scene result in the deaths of innocent bystanders or fellow officers? Will immediate use of deadly force save lives, or unnecessarily cost a life? The officer responding to a call about an irrational, armed man has mere seconds to answer those questions. There is no crystal ball, only training and experience.
A number of years ago, police were called about a man armed with a knife in downtown Wingham. While OPP cruisers converged on the scene, the town’s police chief at the time, Jim Dore, talked to the man, and eventually persuaded him to agree to get into the police cruiser and go to the hospital.
But everyone is aware of another incident involving a distraught man near Walton. Before officers could do or say anything, he opened fire and killed one of them.
Every job requires judgment calls, but a police officer’s judgment calls are often made in desperate situations where lives are at stake. The officers need the best training available to make effective decisions. If the investigation into the death of the Toronto teen reveals the need for more training or a different kind of training, so be it. Both police and the public will benefit.
Another need is up-to-date technology. There have been suggestions police officers carry lapel cameras to record information when they respond to calls such as this. The technology is already being used by some police departments in the United States. If bystanders are using cell phone cameras to record the actions of police, it would make sense for police to have the same capability. Gut instinct tells us a video from a responding officer’s lapel camera would provide a far different perspective of events from a recording made at a distance by someone who may not understand what he or she is seeing.
One thing that would undoubtedly prevent distraught, armed people from being shot would be greater access to mental health and substance abuse treatment. Again, though, we have no idea if the young man killed on that streetcar had a drug or mental health issue.
This is not the time for snap conclusions or public condemnation of either the officer whose actions are being investigated or the young man who was killed. It is a time to seek and study information, in the hope of finding a better way of handling similar situations when they arise. And they will.