Hamilton's police chief says he is open to changes a newly launched Ontario Ombudsman investigation into police use of force might bring to the city.

"With respects to the handling of mentally ill or emotionally disturbed people, we will be open to any recommendations of the ministry that assists us to provide better services in our local community," chief Glenn De Caire said after Monday night's police services board meeting.

But not every police force feels the same. According to Ottawa police and the union representing its officers, the investigation into provincial guidelines for police on use of force could instill too many rules on Ontario police officers trying to do their jobs.

 

'...The issue before police officers is one of behaviours. It is not one of diagnosis.'—Police Chief Glenn De Caire

It's a contentious issue, and one that Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin says comes from two decades worth of inquests into police use of force that have been ignored, prompting his office to investigate whether or not officers are using best practices to de-escalate dangerous situations.

"The recommendations coming out of these inquests are almost carbon copies from each other," Marin said. "Increased police training. Increase how police diffuse situations. What has happened to all these recommendations in 20 years? Have they been gathering dust in some bin somewhere?"

"Einstein is credited as saying 'insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.'"

High profile, public shootings

High profile police shootings in recent months have prompted the Ombudsman's office to act, Marin says. The way Sammy Yatim died on a streetcar in Toronto has caused many to decry the way police use force.

Some are questioning the same issue in Hamilton. The provincial Special Investigations Unit is currently probing the death of 45-year-old Steve Mesic. 

Mesic died on June 7 after a confrontation with police. After checking himself out of a voluntary mental health care program at St. Joes, Mesic was seen wandering in traffic on the Linc by Upper Wentworth Street ramps.

After telling him to get off the road, two officers confronted Mesic in a grassy embankment next to his home. According to the SIU, he was shot several times. The official investigation is still ongoing.

Mesic's fiancée Sharon Dorr and her family have been critical of police response in the wake of his death. They have little faith in the SIU investigation, says Norm Dorr, Sharon's dad.

"It's just police policing police," Dorr told CBC Hamilton. "There are only three witnesses from this thing — one of them is dead and two of them are cops."

Inquest recommendations lie stagnant, Marin says

On the same day Mesic was killed, a coroner's inquest was being held into the shooting death of 27-year-old Phonesay Chanthachack.

Chanthachack was killed when he tried to leave a driveway in a stolen van at 15 Albright Rd back in February 2012. Const. Ryan Tocher, in the path of the van, stopped him by shooting him twice — once in the arm and once in the back.

As part of the inquest, a jury made recommendations that officers in Hamilton should be further educated on when to draw their firearms and ensure they identify themselves as police when they arrest people.

But Marin says recommendations like those are made frequently, with seemingly little tangible follow-through.

"When you look closer, these police shootings bear remarkable similarities to each other," he said. "Are we going to look at improving the police response to this? It seems to be like Groundhog Day — inquest after inquest, police shooting after police shooting."

The issue came up at Monday night's police services board meeting, when De Caire spoke to the scope of how police officers use force.

"The use of force model itself is built across this nation by committees, community groups, opportunities for input, assessment, reviews and inquests to give police officers a framework to apply their legal authorities within a context of a situation," he said.

"Keeping in mind that the issue before police officers is one of behaviours. It is not one of diagnosis, it is not one of problem solving to a particular medical situation or vulnerability, it is one of behavior."

"And our goal, the goal of the model is always to use the least level of force that we could possibly use."

Mike Thomas, president of the Hamilton Police Association, did not respond to requests for comment about the Ombudsman's investigation.

Marin says he hopes to have a report from the investigation available publicly within the next six to 12 months. He says it should provide "consistency and uniformality" on how police officers should use force.

"[Because] right now, how it happens in Ottawa, London, Hamilton and Toronto is as diverse as there are cities."