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Police in Canada Start 2018 in Deadly Fashion

by Jeff Shantz


Police in Canada Start 2018 in Deadly Fashion

Jeff Shantz

It has been a bloody start to 2018 in Canada as police have been involved in the deaths of at least 8 people in January. They did not let up in February as at least another 6 people were left dead through police interactions in February. In 2017 there were at least 65 police-involved deaths, so 2018 is already ahead of that awful pace.

In referencing the numbers of dead in relation to police contact we can only say “at least” 14 people because, as I have written previously, 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. No further details have been provided and the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) are investigating.

So what do we know for sure about the 14 people whose deaths occurred in some way through police involvement? Four victims have been named publicly. 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. There 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.

Two people were killed in a collision related to a police chase in which they were not in the pursued vehicle. Another person was killed by being struck by an unmarked police vehicle. Three victims were described as in distress at the time of the police encounter. Two people died after being tased, including 43-year-old Gordon Couvrette in North Bay. One person, a man in his forties, was shot and killed by Calgary police. In addition to this shooting and the shooting of Joey Knapaysweet, a third person was shot by police, this time the Ottawa Police Service, leaving three people shot and killed by police in Canada in two months.

The ages of victims range from 24 to 63. Four victims were identified as female and ten as male. For one victim (St. John) no details have been provided of any sort.

The provincial Sûreté du Québec (SQ) was involved in three deaths, including the death of Brandon Stephen. The Ontario Provincial Police were involved in two deaths as were the Timmins police. Other forces involved in civilian deaths in January were the RCMP, city police in Regina, Calgary, and North Bay as well as the Niagara Regional Police Service, Peel Regional Police, and York Regional Police.

While the number of cases does not allow for any assessment of trends we can see some issues recurring. The proportion of people in distress for example. There were three in-custody deaths, while in 2017 this was the second most common context for police-involved deaths (18). Two people died as a result of a vehicular chase in January, and a third was struck by a police vehicle in February, while five died through police chases in all of 2017.

Difficulties in gathering information on a systematic basis remain. Indeed there are not even established oversight bodies, like the SIU and the Independent Investigations Office (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 Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI) in Quebec, are not actually independent from police forces, relying on them for investigative work.

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.

Jeff Shantz is a full-time faculty member in the Department of Criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University on Coast Salish territories (in Metro Vancouver). He is the founder of the Critical Criminology Working Group and co-founding member of the Social Justice Centre at KPU, where he is lead researcher on the Anti-Poverty/Criminalization/Social War Policing project


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