Opinions are flying fast and furiously across the Internet on the issue of police forces and racism, and the call for defunding and/or abolishing of police departments. Recently, I saw this post on Facebook that was purportedly posted by a cop who had done some research on the stats. This is the text of that post:
FOR ANYONE INTERESTED: A police officer did the legwork and, complete with references, wrote this educational piece. Feel free to share:
I’m a Canadian Police Officer. I have been stunned and concerned with the very constant media coverage which has labelled policing in Canada as a racist and broken system. I’ve also struggled to understand the public backlash at Police Officers in Canada. This has made me step back and ask some tough questions of myself. Am I a threat to the people I am supposed to protect?
One of the narratives that has struck me most is the claim that minorities in Canada are being murdered by Police. It’s alarming and serious and is being pushed heavily by the media and is enraging people.
“We are here because police continue to murder Black and Indigenous people. We are here because state-sanctioned anti-Blackness continues to be a threat. Because Black and Indigenous people are not safe in cities, including the city of Hamilton.” – Black Lives Matter Activists Canada. – https://www.cbc.ca/…/…/hamilton/black-lives-matter-1.5595584
Is this true? Do police in Canada murder black and indigenous people? Are our Canadian Minorities safe? Are Canadian Police Officers a threat to public safety? Committing or witnessing racial violence or murder by police officers has never been my lived experience as a police officer in Canada. That being said, racism, brutality and bad behaviour exists in my agency and probably every other police agency in Canada. To deny that would be statistically improbable. But what is the risk level? What are the actual facts and numbers when it comes to this serious claim of police murdering Black and Indigenous people in Canada? I turned to a media outlet I knew would not be soft or easy on the police and found a database created by CBC to assist in my understanding of murders committed by police in Canada.
According to this database, from 2000-2017 Canadian Police Officers had fatal encounters with 461 people. Once I started reading through the database it became clear that some of the deaths included in this database are those who died as a result of natural causes, medical complications, overdoses etc while having an encounter with police. In a few of these cases no force was actually used during the encounter at all. Either way, let’s stick to the numbers and be objective when exploring the allegations that police are murdering Canadians. I began digging deeper and reading the case summaries, and this is what I have found so far.
Out of the 461 people who died during those police interactions, 43 were Black people. Out of those 43 Black people who died during a police encounter, 33 were armed with a weapon and 10 were unarmed.
A look at the 10 unarmed deaths should provide insight into the allegations of police murdering people for no reason. There are instances where armed people have been murdered by police (ex. Sammy Yatim in Toronto) but to truly investigate the claim that police are continuously murdering Canadians and to justify the rage and anger and fear that is directed at police, I looked into the unarmed encounters first.
Out of the 10 unarmed Black people that were killed;
3 were a result of a struggle with police in which tasers were used and the person later died (I noted that in each case the deceased had cocaine in their system) Police were cleared of wrongdoing in those cases and the taser (which is not meant to kill a subject) may have been a cause of the deaths in addition to complications from cocaine etc…
4 were the result of natural causes, cardiac arrest and cocaine ingestion after being arrested by police (No force or violence was cited in the summaries and police were not deemed responsible).
2 were a result of a physical struggle in which the officer punched/beat the person while subduing them. (1 of those cases resulted in the officer being charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault and that case is still in court)
1 was a result of a gunshot wound which was ruled accidental while a police officer struggled to arrest a male who had broken into a pharmacy. In this case I noted CBC says the male subject was shot in the back. Further searches show the SIU investigation into the police officer’s action which say the subject was shot in the chest after grabbing the officer’s wrist which was holding the gun. The Officer was cleared of wrongdoing.
Indigenous People Killed by Police in Canada
Out of the 461 people who died in a police encounter during 2000-2017 in Canada, 69 were indigenous.
Out of the 69 people, 12 were unarmed at the time of their death. Of the 12 unarmed people that died:
4 died as a result of an overdose and no force was used in the encounters.
5 died after a taser, beating or pepper spray was used during a forceful arrest. (Some of these summaries are troubling and I don’t see if the officers were charged or cleared)
3 died after being shot. (1 was shot after ramming a police vehicle with a vehicle. 1 after placing an officer in a headlock during a physical struggle in which a baton and pepper spray had no effect, 1 after several suspects ‘fanned out’ around a lone officer at a traffic stop.) The officers were cleared of wrongdoing in these cases.
After reviewing this data I went to Statistics Canada website to see if this could shed some light on how at risk Canadians are of dying during a police encounter whether justified, accidental or murdered.
According to Statistics Canada, Canadian Police received 12.8 million calls for service during the 2017/2018 fiscal year. These are calls from the public to the police and does not include, proactive interactions with the public such as traffic stops, check stops, security at events, random patrols, school visits and street checks etc…
Let’s say the average call load per year is lower than 12.8 million, let’s say it’s 10 million calls for service. Let’s say for every call for service there could be one proactive encounter with the public. In my experience there would be far more of these but for arguments sake let’s say there are also 10 million proactive police encounters each year in Canada. That would mean there are 20 million police interactions with the public in Canada per year. Once again I would estimate that there are far more and each interaction may be with multiple people at a time for example a traffic-stop with multiple people in the car, a noise complaint for a house party, a call for domestic or such with multiple people in the home. Police are likely encountering more than 20 million people per year in Canada.
If you take an average of 20 million interactions per year for 17 years you would have 340 MILLION police encounters with the public over that time period.
Out of those 340 million encounters, 461 people died. That’s a 0.00013% death rate.
If you go further and look at the rate of unarmed Black people who died during a police encounter over that timeframe it’s 0.000002% and around the same for Indigenous people.
461 deaths total. Including incidents which were not a police officer’s fault and no force was used. 461 deaths in 17 years. That’s an average of 27 deaths a year. That means out of the 37 Million People in Canada, 0.00007% OF ALL RACES die during a police encounter each year.
To give perspective:
About 10 people are killed by lightning each year in Canada, and the lighting season up here is rather short. If it lasted the full year, a Canadian of any race would have about the same chance of being killed by a Police Officer as being killed by lightning. – https://www.canada.ca/…/s…/fatalities-injury-statistics.html
Since March of this year, 8,175 Canadian have died of Covid 19. In just a four-month period, a Canadian is 315 times more likely to die from Covid 19 than during an entire year of encounters with a Canadian Police Officer. -https://www.covid-19canada.com/
On a more human/systemic level, a Canadian is about 1,544 times more likely to die after encountering errors, mistakes etc in our Health Care System than by encountering our Law Enforcement system. “In Canada, medical errors and hospital-acquired infections claim between 30,000 and 60,000 lives annually. Thousands more are injured.” – https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/…/medical-error-deaths_b_8350…
After an objective look at the numbers, it is clear they do not support the claim that police “continue to murder” Black, Indigenous, or any people in Canada. The numbers do not support the claim that any Canadian citizen is at any real risk of dying in an encounter with a police officer, let alone being murdered in cold blood by one. The narrative being pushed by the media is not supported by the actual statistics in their own study.
Despite the hatred I see online, the misinformation I see spread by the media and the lack of support I feel from our leaders, I make this commitment to the people of Canada. As a Canadian Police Officer, I will continue to strive to ensure that I am in the 99.99987% of police encounters that do not result in the death of a Canadian; and I will strive to protect my life and the lives of other’s and exhaust every possible option before I am in the 0.00007%
Now, here’s the rub: this post, though abundant with sources, isn’t really engaging those advocating for change–nor is it showing an understanding of their claims or arguments. This post, though written well, is meant to convince people who don’t know better that the status quo is acceptable.
The post focuses purely on deadly force, which completely ignores the immensely disproportionate incarcerated population of Black and Indigenous Canadians. We know from various surveys that white Canadians are just as likely to perpetrate non-violent crimes, including illegal drug usage–but Black and Indigenous Canadians are more likely to be surveilled by police, and thus caught. When caught in similar circumstances to white Canadians, far harsher punishments are imposed on Black and Indigenous Canadians.
Let’s put that aside for a moment though and focus on deadly force. Further, let’s use the same data set the officer used in composing the post: https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform-custom/deadly-force?fbclid=IwAR1tdG-ZuTCJWtCZNTb6ZqrBnyGTFuwjZPe36P1FwhMoKnshjXUPk3-H2PI
This is the first graph in the CBC article. There’s a couple of quick things to note here: while fatalities are indeed low in Canada, that should not be let us be blind to what is causing these fatalities. These fatalities are also the ones attributed to police involvement–what classifies as “victims of police” is unclear, but it’s a reasonable assumption given the code of silence and external solidarity that the numbers here are conservative.
This is the second graph in the CBC data set and the one that’s most illustrative. First, it’s important to note that race and/or ethnicity can’t be confirmed in 22% of cases–this is not because of the present of mixed ethnicities–that is accounted for in the graph. Rather, it is because many police departments do not, in fact, collect race based data. Second, this data is based on an annualized figure over a 17-year period which means it varies year to year, and this is the average per year. This graph, taken from the same data source as the police officer’s post is illustrative: of all the the ethnicities listed, the Indigenous and Black populations are the only ones where there is a clear and significant percentage of victims larger than their percentage of the Canadian population.
This third graph is perhaps the most worrying–for the year this data was collected, the rates of fatal police encounters was on a clear upward trend.
So don’t be fooled by the police officer’s post–despite what he quite rightly says are millions of police encounters where fatal violence does not occur, the fact remains clear that the fatal violence disproportionately affects those of Indigenous and Black Canadians. Until or unless that changes, police officers and police departments remain open to the charge of racism.
These numbers also do not account for the even greater disproportionality manifest in the penitentiary system. Indigenous and Black Canadians are disproportionately represented there despite there being no evidence of a greater disposition towards crimes. Further, Indigenous and Black youths are far more likely to enter the justice system at a young age and receive longer and harsher sentences.
It does not help that Canada has a poor record on matters of race in general. The Canadian government has constantly violated treaties with Indigenous peoples and continues attempts to commit genocide through legislation. The Canadian education system does a poor job of educating youth about the residential school system, the fate of Black people who immigrated from the USA in the wake of the American Revolution, and of the “reverse Underground Railroad” that took place after the American Civil War. The Canadian government also continues to be able to hold immigrants in detention indefinitely and separates children from parents as a matter of course.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that police officers are all bad people; nor am I saying that they are all consciously racist. I am saying that police officers and police departments are insufficiently trained, prepared or equipped to address the structural and systemic ways that racism is perpetuated and people of colour are marginalized and disadvantaged. I am also saying that the tendency of police officers and police departments to avoid an engaged, prolonged, and constant practice of self-examination in these matters is helpful to no one and strains their credibility.
There are now many who are convinced that the situation is deteriorated enough that new approaches are necessary and long overdue. Decriminalization of drug usage and sex work, while not without risk, is viewed by many as a better course than our current overload of the penitentiary system, and would minimize many of the crimes Indigenous and Black Canadians are currently incarcerated for. Taking money currently allocated towards police budgets and putting it into social work, public health, and education is likely to establish greater equity in society and limit factors that lead towards current criminalized behaviour. Limiting situations in which firearms and tasers are brought into is also a step that would greatly cut down on the chances of escalation and unintended fatal violence.
For police officers who find this unpalatable, I think the question needs to be asked: is the primary purpose of the police to maintain law and order? Or is it to serve and protect? If it the former, who defines law and order, and who does it benefit? If it is the latter, what are you willing to sacrifice towards that end? I know that police face difficult choices, split-second decisions, life-or-death actions–but if you can’t verify a threat before acting, if you can’t do everything you can for violence to be a last-resort, if you can’t put the good of the people you are sworn to serve and protect above your own personal good–then you should ask yourself whether you should be doing the job you’re doing.
The truth is that statistics of police officers show great concern for mental and physical well-being–the demands are high and the rewards few. The evidence is abundant that police officers are being asked to do many different tasks over the course of a shift–the question that must be asked is whether the tasks are too many, and whether offloading tasks, diversifying groups responsible, and specializing responses and training, would be a better choice? For myself, I think it’s high time we found out.
For further reading and consideration:
Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by Robyn Maynard
How To Be Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi.