By Jeff Shantz
It has been another bloody year of policing in Canada, as police have been involved in the deaths of at least 57 people in 2018. In 2017 there were at least 65 police-involved deaths, so 2018 was close to that number of lives taken.
In referencing the numbers of dead in relation to police contact, we can only say “at least” 57 people because, as I have written previously for the Georgia Straight , there is no systematic, consistent process for publicly reporting police killings of civilians in Canada. Thus there may be cases which have not been reported in a way that makes clear the role of police in those killings. In the case of one death at St. John Regional Hospital in New Brunswick in January, for example, police simply said that it was “more of a hospital matter than police”, yet police were somehow involved. The exact date of the death has not even been given publicly.
The first reported death happened on January 1 in Duoro Township, near Peterborough, Ontario. Police entered a residence and located a man in distress who was later declared dead at the scene. The last reported death involved a 29-year-old who died in custody in London, Ontario, on December 27.
Police violence and, particularly, police use of lethal force still receive too little attention in Canada. The public is left in the dark about many relevant details of police-involved deaths—notably, the names of officers who kill. This means the public is left unaware when police who have killed are on their streets and in their communities. Basic information about victims (age, ethnicity, etcetera) are often unreported.
What We Know
So what do we know for sure about the 57 people whose deaths occurred in some way through police involvement? The names of known victims released publicly include Brandon Stephen, Joey Knapaysweet, Agnes Sutherland, Gordon Couvrette, Bradley Thomas Clattenburg, Zachary Fairbairn, Olando Brown, Sterling Ross Cardinal, Jordon McKay, Stacey Perry, Buck Evans, and Quin MacDougall. Unlike the situation in the United States, where the names of people killed by police become publicly known and their killings become rallying cries for reform, the names of victims of police violence in Canada are not widely known.
Of named victims, we know that three are Cree. A 21-year-old Cree man, Joey Knapaysweet, and a 63-year-old Cree woman, Agnes Sutherland, were left dead after police interactions on the same weekend in the same small northern Ontario city, Timmins. Both were from the Fort Albany First Nation. Knapaysweet was shot by police, while Sutherland died in custody. Their deaths occurred between the Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier verdicts and it is unlikely the officers involved will even be charged.
Another in-custody death involved a Cree man, Brandon Stephen, a 24-year-old father of two. His was an in-custody death with no specific cause of death provided. This was one of two in-custody deaths in January, along with an unnamed 27-year-old in St. Catharines, Ontario, for whom, similarly, no cause was given.
Concerns about racialization and policing—which have been central to public discussions of policing in large part because of community organizing—are apparent in the 2018 record. At least eight victims of police-involved deaths were Indigenous people. Two other victims were identified as black (Olando Brown and Sterling Ross Cardinal). It must be stressed that these numbers only reflect publicly released information. Police do not officially keep records on racial or ethnic identity, though some advocates have suggested they start to do so in order that this information can be made public.
The ages of victims range from 18 to 88. Nine victims were identified as female and 44 as male. For one victim (St. John), no details have been provided of any sort. Many people killed by police were shot: almost half of the police-involved deaths in Canada in 2018 saw the victims shot by police. Tasers were involved in at least four deaths. Falls accounted for at least four as well.
Although the number of cases does not allow for any assessment of trends, we can see some issues recurring. The number of people in distress, for example. Seven people were publicly identified as being in distress or health crisis at the time police encountered them. There were seven in-custody deaths, although in 2017 this was the second most common context for police-involved deaths (18). Seven people died as a result of a vehicular chase, while five died through police chases in all of 2017.
These latter two are significant given that a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) analysis excluded in-custody deaths and police chases from their recently developed database. This latter omission is curious in light of the high profile in-custody death of Olando Brown in Barrie, Brown, a 32-year-old Black man was tasered while wrestled to the ground by three officers in Barrie, Ontario, on June 22 and went into medical distress and died while in custody at the station.
More victims of police-involved deaths in 2018 were in Ontario—the largest province by population in Canada—than anywhere else. At least 23 people were left dead there in interactions with police. Twelve people died through police interactions in Alberta, 10 in Quebec, five in British Columbia, and two in Saskatchewan. There was at least one victim in each of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nunavut. That is, police were involved in the deaths of civilians almost everywhere in Canada: nine provinces and one territory.
Not surprisingly, given its role as a municipal, provincial, and federal force, the RCMP were the force most involved in civilian deaths in 2018, with eight people left dead through contact with the RCMP. Next was the Calgary Police Service (CPS) which was the most lethal city force in Canada in 2018, also with eight police-involved deaths. The provincial force in Ontario, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), was involved in six deaths. The provincial Sûreté du Québec (SQ) was involved in four deaths, including the death of Brandon Stephen. Among smaller forces, the London Police Service were involved in three deaths and the force in tiny Timmins was responsible for the two previously noted deaths of Fort Albany First Nations people.
In term of cities, the aforementioned Calgary had the most police-involved deaths, with eight. London had three police-involved deaths, and Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto, and Timmins had two apiece. Surrey, B.C., where I live and work had one person die in interaction with police.
A Blue Wall
Difficulties in gathering information on a systematic basis remain. Despite the efforts of researchers, journalists, and criminologists, and the work of community organizers and advocates, police use of lethal force is protected by the blue wall of silence. And this remains a difficult barrier for the public, and media, to crack.
Oversight agencies, in which the public put much faith and trust, have few mechanisms to compel police to cooperate with investigations. Police still obstruct, interfere with, or refuse to fully participate in investigations. In British Columbia, the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) had to take the Vancouver Police Department to court in October to get them to cooperate with investigations. In Quebec, community advocates have held news conferences to state that police are not cooperating with the provincial Bureau of Independent Investigations (Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes). A law in Ontario that would have given the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) the means to compel officers to participate fully—with penalties for not doing so—was tanked by the right-wing (and police-friendly) government of new Premier Doug Ford.
Indeed, there are not even established oversight bodies—like the SIU in Ontario and the IIO in British Columbia—for investigating police killings of civilians in each province and territory in Canada. Those that do exist operate under separate and distinct guidelines and with unique organizational structures and cultures and reporting processes in each case. Some oversight bodies, like the BEI in Quebec, are not actually independent from police forces, relying on them for investigative work. In Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, forces from other provinces investigate cases of lethal force, an unacceptable situation for the twenty-first century.
I stated in my 2017 Straight article that most of my students in criminology classes at Kwantlen Polytechnic University come in unaware. They express shock when hearing about the extent of police-involved deaths in Canada. And it is still true that new students coming into lower-division criminology classes still have little idea of the extent of police killings of civilians in Canada. They still greatly underestimate the numbers.
Some things have changed over the course of 2018, if on small levels. My report in the Straight from last year received some attention and started some discussions. In April, the CBC released a major database of police-involved deaths in Canada since 2000 that generated much interest and brought more concentrated focus on the issue than there has been. Unfortunately, the data base excludes, for arbitrary reasons, victims of police chases and deaths in police custody. The criminologist-managed Killer Cops Canada website has continued its work of documentation and analysis.
The lack of detailed reporting makes it difficult for families, community members, and researchers to know the circumstances of police killings in Canada. Access-to-information requests often do not yield needed information. The practice of not naming police officers who kill means that community members cannot know if repeat offenders are still serving as officers on their forces. And we cannot know if, and where, killer cops are simply moving around and changing forces.
But we can prepare and report the documentation provided here as a way of ensuring information is gathered and available to the public. In Canada, there is much work to be done to bring attention to police killings of civilians.