Sask. Police Commission's use-of-force expert says cops need more money to learn de-escalation

Derek Lamer is the province's expert on use-of-force by police, something he said isn't cut and dry out in the field.

Both Regina and Saskatoon saw increases in officers using physical strikes, police dogs in 2019

Derek Lamer has taught training on all sorts of control and defensive tactics, including tasers and firearms. He also spent 11 years with SWAT in Regina. (Alicia Bridges/CBC)

Derek Lamer says municipal police forces need more money so they can do more training, "especially with the de-escalation piece and verbal communication," contrary to growing calls by Canadian lawmakers and activists to defund police forces with the hope of significant reform in the wake of George Floyd's death.

There have been changes in the local policing world during the last five or six years, with increased emphasis on "verbal judo" —  using words instead of force to calm down a situation — said Lamer, who is the Saskatchewan Police Commission's use-of-force co-ordinator.

But he concedes that more needs to be done. 

Lamer said that officers sometimes rely on physical force in dynamic situations that might not allow for verbal communication. If an officer perceives there to be a risk of "grievous bodily harm" or death they are allowed to use lethal force. If someone actively resists, they can use physical control or less lethal weapons. 

"Our main goal in any kind of situation is to control that situation and get that person or the subject to stop the behaviour that they're doing," he said. "[Officers] often make a split-second decision then and are accountable for it."

Police violence remains under heightened public scrutiny since the death of Floyd, who was killed when police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes in May.

How police interact with people during wellness checks or on mental health related calls has become a particularly contentious issue. At least four people have died during police wellness checks in Canada since April.

Lamers said officers are dealing with more mental health related calls than ever before and agreed more training (and more money for training) on how to respond to these specific situations would be beneficial. 

Police critics around the globe say that rather than giving police more money, the funding should be redirected to organizations that can deal with mental health situations and not use force.

Sandy Hudson, a writer and organizer who started Black Lives Matter Toronto, recently explained the movement to defund the police to CBC, saying "there needs to be a separate organization that is distinct from police departments that respond to emergency calls that are about mental health crises."

"[Police] shouldn't be showing up with lethal force. What we need is an emergency response service that is going to provide the mental health support that the people really need and that is not going to show up to kill people," she said.

Sandy Hudson says there are already examples of services created specifically to respond to mental health emergencies — and that they are showing success. (Submitted by Sandy Hudson)

In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, a majority of city councillors said they support disbanding the city's police department and replacing it with a new public safety model that has yet to be developed.

In Toronto, two city councillors are proposing a motion that calls for a 10 per cent across-the-board cut to the police budget. The money saved would be invested in community programs.

In Saskatchewan, Lamer said if an officer uses force they must be able to justify it and are held accountable. They have to be able to articulate how they, or a bystander, was threatened in the situation. 

Saskatchewan's only official police oversight body — the Public Complaints Commision (PCC) — has criticized officers for not being able to do that. 

The PCC's most recent report said "the lack of articulation in report writing, particularly where force was used during an arrest, while improved over previous years, continues to be a concern. It said "police jargon such as "subject became assaultive" does not adequately describe the actions which the officer had to overcome.

Even Lamer said "that's still obviously a tool that we need to work on." 

Lamer said recruits get a half-day in the classroom to learn about how to articulate their use of force during their 20-week policing course. 

Overall, recruits spend eight hours in the classroom learning about the national framework on use of force. However, Lamer said trainers attempt to weave in dialogue around use of force during all tactic training. 

According to the Regina Police Service, new officers are trained for 80 hours in defence and control tactics, firearms, tasers and batons, as well as de-escalation techniques.

They learn how to do a "carotid neck restraint," where an officer uses their arm to restrict the flow of blood to the brain by applying pressure to the neck of a person on the ground . 

There is no "step-by-step process" for officers to follow when responding to a call, rather it depends on an individual's read of the situation. 

In the last two-decades, Lamer said there’s also been a shift in policing that acknowledges each officer will respond to a situation and perceive threat differently based on who they are, like size, gender and experience. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Physical strikes, police dog use up in both cities 

The Regina Police Service says "currently there is no manner in which to track the success of de-escalation training as the uses of force are fluid in each incident and would be difficult to determine if it was officer presence, communication, or the presence of an intermediate weapon which resulted in compliance," in its annual use of force statistics report. 

The report indicates a drop of nearly nine per cent of total use of force incidents that were reported. Breaking down the numbers, a part of the drop was because the police used the restraint chair in the detention area less (18 times in 2019 compared to 29 in 2018.) 

Not including the chair, there were 180 use of force incidents recorded in 2018 and 183 in 2019 . 

Some categories saw sizeable increases, like physical strikes causing injury (38 in 2019) and injuries related to police dogs (26 in 2019).

In Saskatoon, police reported more use-of-force incidents, with 271 up from 256. Police dogs were also involved in one of the biggest jumps, up to 43 times in 2019 from 21 in 2018.  The report suggests the change could be because two dogs died last year and one dog was removed from the service "due to an unintentional contact."

There was also an increase in the number of people who were injured by police during an arrest: 119, up from 81 in 2018. Thirty-two people were hospitalized because of their injuries. Saskatoon police also reported more physical strikes: 107 up from 89 the year prior. 

The report said Sgt. Eddie Panamaroff, who contributed to the provincial defensive tactics manual in 2014 and is collaborating on a revision of it, "advised that over the last six years, techniques have been added to the training program at SPS to help mitigate strikes to the head for a subject that is 'turtling on the ground.'"

A spokesperson for the SPS declined CBC's request for an interview with Panamaroff about use of force and de-escalation in Saskatoon. 

As for Lamer, he said there could be a shift in police training moving forward. 

"I can see changes coming," he said. "More scenario based training and more verbal de-escalation training. Those are always key components that can always be interpreted and updated."


Kendall Latimer


Kendall Latimer is a Saskatchewan-based reporter for CBC News. Story idea? Let's connect: