The “Black Lives Matter” movement that emerged following the deadly police shooting of a young black man in Ferguson Missouri in 2014, has been most recently protesting outside Toronto Police Headquarters.
Sudanese immigrant Andrew Loku was shot and killed by Toronto Police in the hallway of his apartment building on Gilbert Ave on July 5th, 2015. He was armed with a hammer and threatening a resident there that evening. The Special Investigation Unit (SIU) announced in March this year that the shooting was justified as the officer firing the fatal shots “feared for his life and that of his partner”. This decision has not been accepted by protestors, alleging that the Toronto Police engage in racially-biased policing.
A number of important issues emerge from this and comparable incidents, from the length of time it takes SIU to conduct such investigations; the growing challenges for police in dealing with people suffering mental health issues; and the lack of less-lethal Conducted Energy Weapons, which are commonly referred to by the name of the predominant manufacturer of such devices – “Taser”. (See my OpEd: “The growing need for Tasers in Toronto”, February 2, 2016)
Believe me, the taking of any life by police is never considered lightly, and it wasn’t in this case, whether every community member agrees with the subsequent investigative findings by SIU or not. But other than the reality that Mr. Loku was in fact black, there has been no evidence whatsoever that the involved officers engaged with and/or took the life of Andrew Loku because of his colour.
Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack recently articulated very well that this tragedy was not about race. In fact hours prior to the shooting, Toronto Police officers who were concerned about his safety, drove Loku and his three-wheeled scooter to his residence, following reports that he was putting himself and others in harm’s way by riding on a busy Toronto thoroughfare.
Toronto is not Ferguson, Missouri. The police department in that city was clearly not reflective of its largely black community; had a horrendous track record of racially-biased policing; and does not have an independent body that investigates incidents where the police cause serious bodily harm or death. The legislation, oversight and accountability mechanisms here are precise and rigorous. Toronto and Ferguson are completely dissimilar worlds.
Just because a person of colour dies at the hands of police, it does not make that person a victim of racism. Racism is completely intolerable and the use of force by police has to be scrutinized, as it was by SIU in this case. In the Loku tragedy, police responded to a call and were forced to use deadly force, which the SIU investigated and deemed to be justified.
SIU Director Tony Loparco is a principled and highly- experienced criminal prosecutor. He has not shied from charging police officers in the past and will always lay charges where grounds and likelihood of conviction exist. Let there be no doubt.
Had the SIU determined that the use of force was unjustified, then the rationale – including any allegations of racism, would have been publicly dissected in a criminal prosecution. A Coroner’s Inquest is not mandatory in this case, but if one is held, allegations of racism could be discussed during that process and/or during any subsequent civil legal proceedings.
One of the more flagrant issues in this case in my view, is that if TPS officers were all equipped with Tasers, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Andrew Loku would likely still be alive, as might several other individuals suffering from mental illness who have lost their lives in similar violent confrontations with police.
No police service is perfect or completely void of biased officers. There will always be some officers in most police services that have racist beliefs. That reality is totally unacceptable and as they become aware, police chiefs will do all they can to rid their services of such officers – through due process. But it is not a systemic issue, thankfully. As intolerable as it is, we are talking about a very minute number of officers.
Not only will the chiefs in Ontario not accept such behavior from even one officer, the vast majority of fellow cops will not tolerate it either. That is not who they are and is it how they want their police services to be regarded by the public. Community trust is paramount to effective policing. They do not want to be negatively viewed by the public and jeopardize that critical trust.
As I repeatedly acknowledge, no cop goes to work wanting to take a life – of any colour. Nor do they want the stress of the ensuing inquiry, public attention, or media frenzy. The vast majority just want to do their jobs well and want the public they serve, their colleagues and themselves to go home safely at the end of the day. In their view, ALL lives matter.
Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.