Nunavut's top cop says he's confident the territory's RCMP officers have the right training to de-escalate situations without resorting to violence.
Commanding Officer Michael Jeffrey's remarks come as the territory reels from its latest police-involved shooting. A 39-year-old man was shot by RCMP in Hall Beach last week after live streaming on Facebook that he wanted to "die by police." His death by police was Nunavut's third since December.
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But in an interview with CBC News, Jeffrey stressed the rarity of such occurrences. He noted RCMP in Nunavut get some 20,000 calls a year, most of which are resolved without officers shooting anyone, adding how they get at least one gun-related call every two days in the territory.
"I want to reassure the public that in general, there's a lot of great collaboration and partnership that's happening in the communities where a lot of things are being resolved at the local level," Jeffrey said.
"There's just these flare-ups that you're going to see."
De-escalation emphasized in training
The "flare-ups" come on the heels of last November's coroner's inquest into the police-involved death of Felix Taqqaugaq in Igloolik in 2014. From it, jurors issued 25 recommendations, including the need for the Nunavut RCMP to emphasize communication and verbal de-escalation skills in training officers.
The RCMP had already enhanced its mandatory officer training to include modules on de-escalation, and Jeffrey said about 75 per cent of Nunavut's officers are up to date in taking the updated courses.
"When we're dealing with someone in an emotional state in a crisis situation, the focus is about trying to tell them that it's about their wellness. It's not really treating them as criminals," Jeffrey said.
"We're really trying to help them find a path to de-escalate the situation. It's really built around communication."
Alongside the three recent shooting deaths are two instances in the past four months where officers successfully defused an armed situation.
In Pangnirtung in February, officers responded to a call of a man inside his home with a firearm and threatening to harm himself. According to an RCMP statement at the time, officers successfully de-escalated the situation through talking to the man, and he surrendered without incident.
Then in March in Rankin Inlet, the RCMP got a call of shots fired from inside a home. Though the RCMP made no mention of de-escalating that incident, officers made an arrest without any injuries reported.
Life skills needed to supplement training, expert says
One expert in police ethics and accountability says training can only go so far.
"The best officer is typically somebody who has some education and they also have life skills, so they've been out there and they've dealt with people, they know how to talk to people," said Rick Parent, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University and a 30-year police veteran.
"I think we would be naive and foolish to believe we can put somebody on a course for eight hours, 40 hours, and they're going to have the same skills as a 20-year psychologist," he said. "It just doesn't happen."
But in dealing with language and cultural barriers, there isn't a strict set of guidelines set out in training.
Jeffrey said officers in Nunavut receive mandatory cultural awareness training – run by an Inuk RCMP member with an elder – but only about half of officers have taken it.
Jeffrey said there are a pair of Inuit officers in Iqaluit who can act as negotiators to ease language barriers in certain situations. There are currently 12 Inuit RCMP members, all based in Iqaluit. In the communities, the RCMP will sometimes call on civilians to help.
"It has happened in many occasions where a family or community member has reacted and been able to de-escalate a situation," Jeffery said. "However when we're dealing with an emotionally-distraught person who may be affected by drugs or alcohol, it would be inappropriate for us to try and bring a third person in.
"It could actually make things worse, or put that person's life in danger."
Toll on officers, too
As for the times when officers are on the other end of a shooting in a community, Jeffrey said they're often relocated. They're then put through a rehabilitation process before being put back on active duty.
"Especially because Nunavut communities are so small in general, there's a risk assessment that's done in terms of 'Should we be leaving that officer within that community?'" Jeffery said.
"I'd love to reassure the public and say it's not going to happen again, but we never know when it will happen again. We hadn't had any for many years prior to that, and then we've had three in a row. We may not see any for many years to come, or there may be one tomorrow that we hope will not happen."
Asked if he thinks the three deaths since December were preventable, Jeffrey said it would be inappropriate for him to comment, citing the pending investigations and coroner's inquests.