When Hamilton police shot and killed 45-year-old former steelworker Steve Mesic earlier this month he became the fourth person fatally shot in controntation with police in the last seven years.

In the seven years before that, the number of people fatally shot by police was zero.

The Mesic shooting came in the same week that a coroner's inquest was investigating the circumtstances of another fatal shooting, the February 2012 death of  27-year-old Phonesay Chanthachack, killed while trying to evade a police takedown in  a stolen van.

The two incidents brought into focus Hamilton police use of deadly force and the consequences of the split second decisions officers are often called upon to make. But it isn't just fatal shootings that have increased in recent years. Police statistics reviewed by CBC Hamilton show a dramatic increase in use of force in many categories in 2012 —everything from striking someone to how often they use stun guns and draw their firearms.

That is the same year police celebrated a three year trend that has seen violent crime drop by more than 19 per cent .

Consider:

  • Violent crime in Hamilton dropped 19.1 per cent from 2010 to the end of 2012
  • A police officer pointed a gun at someone 145 times in 2012 compared to 91 times in 2008
  • Officers struck someone 35 times in 2012 as opposed to 13 times in 2008
  • Police used conducted energy weapons (Tasers) 50 times in 2012 versus 35 times in 2008
  • All told, Hamilton police officers used force (including impact weapons, barehanded strikes and aerosol weapons) 403 times in 2012, compared to 271 times in 2008
  • In 2008, there were 787 officers on the force. In 2012, there were 784

The changing picture around use of force — fatal and otherwise — raises a number of questions:

Is there something different in how those split-second decisions are being made?

Hamilton police say no, and the province's Special Investigations Unit has cleared the officers involved in the three investigations it has concluded.

As well, how can police be resorting to force more frequently when violence in the city is declining so dramatically? Is something changing in policing in Hamilton?

Police say the use of force numbers are up because of increased transparency, coupled with a focus on drug-related crime in the city last year, and not because of any change in philosophy or approach.

But others say it’s unusual for police use of force to rise in a time when violent crime is dropping — and one city activist on the ground says he's noticed a marked difference in the perception of the amount of force used in policing.

Violent crime down, use of force numbers up

These numbers aren’t typical, says Joseph Pollini, a retired lieutenant commander of the New York City Police Department. Pollini is 33-year veteran of policing, having worked in narcotics both undercover and as a field investigator, as a detective in the arson/explosion division conducting terrorist bombing investigations and as a detective in homicide. He is currently an instructor in policing and deputy chair of the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He has testified in U.S courts as a policing expert.

He told CBC Hamilton that when violent crime increases, there’s usually a direct parallel with the amount of times force is used by police. The opposite is what is happening in Hamilton.

"It’s not usual to have that opposite reaction," Pollini said. "I’ve never heard of that. That’s not a common situation."

Hamilton police stress during training that officers should use the least amount of force that’s necessary in any situation, says Jon Alsbergas, Hamilton police’s use of force supervisor and training analyst.

"We are fully accountable to the public whenever we use force," he told CBC Hamilton.

In 2012, the police service changed how officers record force incidents during arrests. The service used to accept "team reports" in which members of a specific task force submit one report as a unit on any given police action.

Now, all officers have to submit their own use of force reports as part of an overall shift in philosophy that puts more emphasis on accountability, says deputy police chief Ken Leendertse. "This allows us a better tracking of the system."

Hamilton police would not answer questions related to the number of SIU investigated shootings in the last seven years, citing the ongoing investigation into the death of Steve Mesic.

But with regard to other categories, drug arrests are also driving up the numbers, police say. According to police spokesperson Catherine Martin, there has been a 39 per cent increase in drug arrests in Hamilton over the last three years. According to police documents, those numbers are up because of an increased focus on drug arrests by police, not increased drug activity.

Those arrests are often more violent, Leendertse says. "These are all very violent situations where our members could experience extreme violence."

The deputy chief outright rejected the notion that Hamilton police officers have more of a license to use force than they have in the past.

"We use force solely for the protection of the public and the officers themselves."

Police presence 'increased and intimidating'

But there’s a feeling amongst activists and people living downtown that police have changed the way they interact with the general public, says Lee Reed, a local musician and activist.

"The police presence is definitely more increased and intimidating in the last few years," Reed said. "There’s not a lot of trust in the police that they’re doing the right thing, or a good thing."

Reed became very vocal about police brutality after the death of 18-year-old Andreas Chinnery, who was shot by police on Feb. 2, 2011 after swinging a bat at a Hamilton police officer inside his Barton Street East apartment. The officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing by the SIU.

Reed was involved in fundraising shows for the family after Chinnery’s death, and says seeing firsthand who it affected really drove home how a split-second decision can change the lives of many people forever.

He says it takes far too long for families and the public to get answers and closure when a police officer shoots someone.

"I do wish the public had more trust in the police," he said. "But they have a lot of trust to rebuild."

Reed also takes issue with the way police handled the situation with Phonesay Chanthachack that ultimately lead to the 27-year-old's death. Chanthachack was shot and killed near Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School by Hamilton police constable Ryan Tocher while trying to escape police in a stolen van.

Tocher was cleared of any wrongdoing in an SIU investigation last year.

"Is his life worth more than a stolen car? For drawing weapons in front of schools?" Reed asked.

"Police tactics have changed, and I can say that as a person living downtown and seeing how they deal with people. It has become far more repressive and with a greater show of force."

Use of force fluctuating

The amount of times force is used by Hamilton police has fluctuated over the years. In 2009, there were 229 use of force incidents in Hamilton — a relatively low year. In 2005 there were 317 incidents — the highest level since 2000. The number dips or rises each year — but use of force analyst Alsbergas doesn’t have a firm answer as to why.

"It does fluctuate every year," he said. "But there’s no overall pattern that I can discern."

Alsbergas says that force is applied "very minimally" by police officers in Hamilton. Police arrested 8,592 people in 2012, and used force in just over 3 per cent of those cases.

Some numbers can be deceptive when it comes to Hamilton police’s force reporting, too. Reports say that police discharged their firearms 46 times in 2012 — but in 45 of those cases, it was to euthanize deer. Of the 209 times a police officer fired a gun in Hamilton from 2008 to 2012, only six cases involved people, Alsbergas says.

Crime is down in many areas. According to a report presented to the police services board in February, most major types of crime in the city have decreased.

Using a five-year average, the report shows fewer homicides, robberies, assaults, break-and-enters and thefts, as well as decreases in other major areas.

'I don’t expect any police officer to risk their safety or their life'

Nancy DiGregorio, the chair of the Hamilton Police Services Board, wouldn’t comment on the rising use of force numbers, saying it’s an operations matter. Mayor Bob Bratina, the only member of city council currently sitting on the board, says he fully accepts the deputy chief’s reasons for the rise.

"The service’s internal accountability processes and supervision are driving the numbers up, not more actual force being used," Bratina said in an email.

By the numbers:

Violent crime in Hamilton dropped 19.1 per cent from 2010 to the end of 2012

A police officer pointed a gun at someone 145 times in 2012 compared to 91 times in 2008

Officers struck someone 35 times in 2012 as opposed to 13 times in 2008

Police used conducted energy weapons (Tasers) 50 times in 2012 versus 35 times in 2008

All told, Hamilton police officers used force (including impact weapons, barehanded strikes and aerosol weapons) 403 times in 2012, compared to 271 times in 2008

In 2008, there were 787 officers on the force. In 2012, there were 784

Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla told CBC Hamilton that the levels are justified in order to "protect the officer and ensure they are following due diligence."

Merulla says it’s too easy for people to criticize numbers when it comes to policing without having a firm understanding of what officers face on a daily basis. "There’s an element out there that has a great deal of disdain for police," he said. "I don’t expect any police officer to risk their safety or their life."

It’s tough for people to truly understand what it’s like for a police officer when they have to decide whether or not to fire a gun at a person, Pollini says.

"Most civilians have no concept at all what goes through an officer’s mind when they’re facing deadly force," Pollini said.

In his 33 years with the NYPD, Pollini has been involved in four shooting incidents. The first one came two months into the job. "You only have a minute amount of time to make a decision," he said. "If you take too long, you can end up being carried out in a box."

Some officers can dwell on the decision a long time, he says. Everyone is different and reacts differently.

"Some people will have it stay in their minds forever," he said.

"Some will say, ‘it was him or me.’"