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2023-04-02 at 17:22 #398739Nat QuinnKeymaster
For the last twenty years, major highway bridges in Ontario have been named for police officers killed on duty, a policy described in legislation as a gesture of respect and gratitude “to the dedicated police officers who have courageously and unselfishly given their lives in the line of duty. Our debt to them can never be repaid.”
It is a terribly common memorial to a crisis that seems to be spiking both in Ontario and across the country, with eight officers killed in Canada since the fall. Police killings have averaged fewer than two per year in Canada since 1990. In that time, there have been extreme outlier events like Mayerthorpe, Alta., where four officers were killed in a single incident in 2005, or Moncton, N.B., in 2014, where three officers died. But on duty deaths remain unusual enough to shock the national conscience, and to evoke large displays of solidarity from fellow first-responders. To see this happen twice in the last several days, in Alberta and Quebec, has left concerned Canadians scrambling for explanations and grasping at solutions.
First in mid-March, in Edmonton, two officers responding to a mother’s 911 call about her teenage son found him unexpectedly armed. Constables Travis Jordan and Brett Ryan died of gunshot wounds. The mother is also injured, and police have connected the teenager, identified as Roman Zoltan Shewchuk, 16, to a shooting four days previously at a nearby restaurant, which left an employee with a traumatic brain injury. Shewchuk, who also killed himself with the gun, had previously been detained on mental health grounds.
Then, this week near Trois-Rivières, Que., Sergeant Maureen Breau was stabbed and killed while arresting a man with a history of psychiatric disturbance for uttering threats.
“Tragic, senseless deaths like these set off a wide range of emotions for all of us. We are all human,” said Kellie Morgan, acting deputy chief of Edmonton Police Service’s community policing bureau, at a recent press conference. “So many things go through a police officer’s mind when the unthinkable happens… It is a normal response to be triggered and reminded of past trauma, including the loss of Const. Daniel Woodall in 2015, and the many police officer deaths we have endured across the country in the last several months.”
A cluster like this is not a statistical trend, said Michael Arntfield, also a former police officer and now associate professor at Western University in the department of English and Writing Studies with interests in criminology. But it is at least a short-term spike that illustrates some of the interacting problems, as he sees them.
He pins blame on “systemic government incompetence” at all levels, “a multiplicity of government failures to protect vulnerable people and by extension all people.”
Federally, criminal procedure is such that many offenders are released despite concerns about public safety, and they are able to acquire guns despite legal restrictions. Provincially, health policy is such that mental health care is patchy and deinstitutionalized, with the burdens of care and risk unloaded onto the community, and crises left to police officers.
Sending police to act as de facto social workers and paramedics is no solution, Arntfield said, and the community policing model has proven itself a failure.
“You can’t be everything to everybody,” he said. The crises of opioid abuse and lack of housing offer plenty of frequent scenarios in which these general legacies of failure can become specific human disasters, he said, but these lessons are usually too big to learn from any one tragedy.
This has not stopped provincial governments from trying. In 2008, Alberta created the the Alberta Serious Incident Response team, following an Ontario model in place since 1990. British Columbia created a similar civilian oversight board called the Independent Investigations Office in 2012.
But these remain a patchwork, as does much of the lesson learning, such as the independent review in the Moncton spree killing by Justin Bourque, which accounted for all three police officers murdered on duty in Canada in 2014. That review led to the RCMP being found guilty of labour code violations by failing to provide adequate equipment or training.
This week, in Nova Scotia, the Mass Casualty Commission released its final report on the April 2020 spree killings in which 22 died including a police officer, with recommendations. Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister, was in attendance for the release, but Parent notes Canada is one of the few similar countries without a formal federal entity focused on policing oversight. He points, for example, to oversight successes in Australia.
Arntfield points out that police training is driven by scenarios, and some of the worst failures happen in novel and unforeseen situations, such as the ambush killing in Ontario last year of Const. Andrew Hong inside a fast food restaurant. But too often responding officers are simply in the dark about what sort of scenario they are responding to, beyond “trouble with a person.”
“The challenge will be to transmutate these tragedies into teachable moments,” Arntfield said. In mental health calls such as in Edmonton, he said, you might consider whether to bring the complainant outside first, for example. “This could ultimately rewrite some basic response procedures,” Arntfield said.
Parent notes that much of the institutional effort in response to the on duty murder of police officers is spent looking at misconduct. Sometimes that is crucial, as when civilians are also injured or killed in interactions with police. But Parent draws an analogy to plane crashes, in which some transportation safety investigations prioritize finding causes and preventing repetition over misconduct.
On that view, Parent also points to the hundreds of “near misses” he tracks every year involving police, minor injuries or dangerous situations that could have been worse, and could have been avoided. Blame can be important sometimes, but blame is local and specific, whereas this problem is broad and general.
“We only focus on misconduct, and that’s where we have let ourselves down,” Parent said. “That’s the disappointing part, that we just kind of let it go on the way it is…. Once police knock on the door, the odds of them being murdered is high.”
The eight police officers recently killed in Canada
At least eight police officers have been killed in Canada since September 2022. The Canadian Press took a look at their cases and who they were.
Sgt. Maureen Breau, early 40s
The veteran Quebec provincial police officer was stabbed to death Monday night after she tried to arrest a suspect in Louiseville, Que., about 100 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
The 35-year-old suspect, whose identity has not been released, was later shot and killed by other officers who arrived on the scene.
Breau, who had two children, had more than 20 years of experience and was four days away from starting a new job as an investigator.
Const. Travis Jordan, 35, and Const. Brett Ryan, 30
The Edmonton police officers were shot when they responded to a call about a family dispute at an apartment on March 16.
A 16-year-old boy fired multiple shots at the officers as they approached the suite, and the officers didn’t have a chance to fire back. The teen then shot and wounded his mother during a struggle for the gun, and shot and killed himself.
Ryan, a former paramedic, had been with the Edmonton force for five and a half years and was about to become a father.
Jordan moved to Edmonton from Nova Scotia so he could realize his childhood dream of becoming an officer, and had been with the service for almost nine years.
Const. Grzegorz Pierzchala, 28
Ontario Provincial Police have said Pierzchala was responding to a call for a vehicle in a ditch west of Hagersville, Ont., on Dec. 27 and was fatally shot in an ambush when he got there.
Pierzchala had been with the force for about a year and had been notified that he had passed his 10-month probation period hours before he died.
He was previously a special constable at Queen’s Park who, as a boy, dreamt of joining the police ranks. His colleagues have remembered him as a wonderful officer with “the biggest heart of gold you could ever imagine.”
Two people have been charged with first-degree murder in his death.
Const. Shaelyn Yang, 31
Yang was killed after being stabbed in Burnaby, B.C., on Oct. 18 while trying to issue an eviction notice to a man who had been living in a tent at a local park.
During an altercation that led to her death, the mental health and homeless outreach officer for the RCMP shot the man, who survived.
Mounties in B.C. have described Yang as a kind, caring person who wanted to help people living with mental health issues and experiencing homelessness.
The Independent Investigations Office, British Columbia’s police watchdog, has said there are no reasonable grounds to believe Yang committed an offence.
The man has since been charged with first-degree murder in her death.
Const. Devon Northrup, 33, and Const. Morgan Russell, 54
South Simcoe Police Service constables Northup and Russell were killed on Oct. 11, after they responded to a disturbance call at an Innisfil, Ont., home.
The Special Investigations Unit, the province’s police watchdog, has said neither officer drew their guns before they were shot. The agency has said a 22-year-old man at the home shot the two officers and also died in the shooting.
Northup was remembered by his colleagues as a funny, kind and dedicated officer who served as a member of the mental health crisis outreach team.
Colleagues said Russell passed over promotions and delayed his retirement to keep working in a community he served for 33 years.
Russell was described as a mentor, who sat on the hiring panel that started Northrup’s career. He was also remembered as a disciplined officer who was trained in crisis negotiations.
Const. Andrew Hong, 48
Police have said Hong was shot in an ambush on Sept. 12 at a Mississauga Tim Hortons while he was getting coffee for his colleagues on a lunch break.
Many people who spoke at his funeral said the fact that he was on a coffee run was indicative of his generosity. Loved ones described Hong as a natural teacher who not only taught his children various skills, but who also gave valuable lessons to his trainees in the motorcycle unit.
Investigators have said the man who killed Hong later shot three people at an auto body shop — killing two and injuring one — before being killed by police.
The Canadian Press
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