Beau Baker death: Police training needs overhaul, says rights advocate

The shooting death of Beau Baker by police raises the issue of whether the current police training model focuses enough on de-escalation, according to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
Beau Baker, 20, was fatally shot in an altercation with police on April 2, 2015. (Facebook)

There are many questions around the death of Beau Baker, the 20-year-old Kitchener man who was fatally shot in an interaction with police last week outside an apartment building on Brybeck Crescent. 

Those questions will stay unanswered publicly for now, as the province's police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit or SIU, looks into the case. The Waterloo Regional Police Service won't discuss the details of the case while the SIU investigation takes place. 

But Baker's death brings increased scrutiny of the current police training model. In particular, there are questions on whether it focuses enough on de-escalation and dealing with people with mental health problems, according to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

"It trains police officers to ratchet up their response for each level of perceived defiance from the individual," said Laura Berger, the CCLA's acting program director, in an interview with Craig Norris on The Morning Edition

"In particular in the context of individuals with disabilities or mental health issues, there have been concerns that that might not be an appropriate way to respond," she said, speaking to the issue of police use of force at large, and not Baker's death specifically.

What is clear, according to the SIU, is that police were called to the building at 77 Brybeck Crescent just after 9:00 p.m. last Thursday, and after an "interaction" between Baker and police, Baker was shot. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. 

The SIU has identified one officer as the subject of its investigation and will also be talking to another seven officers designated as witnesses.

Use of force training

According to the Ontario Police Services Act, a police officer "shall not draw a handgun or discharge a firearm unless he or she believes, on reasonable grounds, that to do so is necessary to protect against loss of life or serious bodily harm." 

"The legal language leaves a great deal to the individual officer's judgement in the moment," said Berger. "So that's why it's essential to look beyond the written regulations and policies and ask how police officers are being trained and instructed to use force." 

In Ontario, Berger says, there's a use of force model that outlines how and when police should use force, but it may not focus enough on de-escalation. 

"For one thing, individuals with disabilities may display different physical cues, so they may not respond immediately to verbal commands, either because they have perceptual difficulties or they're having difficulty processing in the moment," said Berger. "They may avert their eyes or they may rock back and forth."

Berger said the recommendations from former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci's report on the Toronto Police last year are a good place to start when it comes to changing use of force training and how police interact with people in crisis.

Iacobucci made 84 recommendations in response to the police shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a Toronto streetcar in 2013. Included in those recommendations are suggestions that that front-line officers who may use guns or stun guns should wear body cameras, mental health first aid training should be mandatory for all officers, and use of force guidelines should be changed. 

It's not yet clear when the SIU will present the results of the investigation into Baker's death. 

The SIU is automatically called in to review cases involving police where there has been death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault.