Politics

Mounties starting to lean on deterrence methods over force, new report says

RCMP officers' use of physical force and threats of force hit a record level in 2020 — but the numbers also suggest Mounties are slowly adopting deterrence methods, such as drawing a weapon without firing.

Officers displayed or pointed a firearm at a member of the public 3,315 times in 2020

RCMP officers examine a driver's licence. Newly released numbers track RCMP officers' use of force in 2020. (Submitted by RCMP)

RCMP officers' use of physical force and threats of force hit a record level in 2020 — but the numbers also suggest Mounties are slowly adopting deterrence methods, such as drawing a weapon without firing.

The RCMP recently released its latest breakdown of what it calls "police intervention methods," a term covering any instance of an RCMP officer touching a member of the public or brandishing a weapon.

While the RCMP says the vast majority of its interactions with the public end peacefully, Mounties used "police intervention options" during 4,840 occurrences in 2020 — the highest annual number since 2012.

For the second year in a row, cases in which Mounties used deterrence methods — such as pointing pepper spray at a subject without using it — outnumbered those involving the use of force. The RCMP said it expects to see that trend grow in the coming years.

"There's been a big focus on de-escalation within the organization," said Simon Baldwin, manager of the operational research unit at RCMP national headquarters.

"I'd like to think that that's the work in the training that's kind of paying off and reducing use of force overall. But I think it's also, with the use of different intervention options, there's a lot of effectiveness in using it as a deterrent."

The RCMP — which provides contract policing in all three territories and most provinces — has been under pressure to account for its use of force after a number of high-profile cases, including the arrest of Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam and the 2020 killing of Rodney Levi, a member of the Metepenagiag First Nation in New Brunswick.

The report covers 2020 but was only released in early 2022. It does not cover the RCMP's role in the recent Ottawa protest occupation, one of the largest police operations in Canadian history.

Drawing a firearm remained Mounties' most common deterrence method in 2020. RCMP officers drew and displayed or pointed a firearm at a member of the public without firing 3,315 times that year.

"Overall, that's still a very limited number of early interactions with the public," said Cpl. Nick Widdershoven of the RCMP's national police intervention unit.

"We have our training set around when it is appropriate for a firearm to be drawn … we're talking about very high-risk situations."

University of Toronto sociology professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a special adviser to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said brandishing weapons still comes with risk.

"When weapons are present, and certainly when they're drawn, there is the potential for them to be used," he said.

"I do have concerns, of course, when weapons are present, and weapons are drawn. I think it'd be important as well to acknowledge we are having conversations in this country around use of force and certainly police killings," he added, pointing out that Black and Indigenous people tend to be "greatly overrepresented" among targets for police use of force.

Fatal shootings on the rise

While RCMP officer-involved shootings were down in 2020, the year saw a new record set in fatal Mountie-involved shootings — 14 deaths. An RCMP officer was also shot and killed that year.

"Those kind of go hand-in-hand if you know subjects are shooting at officers, they are likely going to return fire," said Baldwin.

"It is a trend that we're going to be looking at with the impact of COVID and stress and things like that. I'm not sure what that's doing to the population. And so it is something that we will continue to examine as we go forward."

More than 350 subjects had to go to hospital following encounters with RCMP officers in 2020. Eight Mounties were hospitalized after violent incidents that year. The RCMP also recorded three in-custody deaths involving the use of force in 2020, all of them in British Columbia.

RCMP officers were cleared in subsequent investigations of two of those in-custody deaths. The third incident is still under investigation. 

In about half of the cases where police intervention options were used in 2020, officers reported the subjects had weapons.

"I always have questions raised for me when I see 'assault police officer' and 'resist arrest' because those are are highly discretionary," said Owusu-Bempah 

"What actually counts as an assault on a police officer can be something as simple as someone moving in the wrong direction and accidentally striking a police officer. When we look at other areas where we see clear evidence of inequality and large racial disparities, it often comes in the context of 'resist arrest', 'obstruct officer' and 'assault on officer.'"

Third of subjects 'emotionally disturbed'

The RCMP said 69 per cent of subjects in encounters with Mounties were perceived to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, while about a third were perceived to be emotionally disturbed.

The RCMP's watchdog agency, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, has said it has a "general pattern of concern" about the RCMP's "unreasonable use of force" during wellness and mental health calls.

Canada's largest psychiatric facility has even called for police officers to be replaced as first-responders in mental health emergencies.

Erick Laming, a criminology lecturer at Trent University who studies police use of force and accountability, said the numbers suggest some big changes in the types of force being applied by RCMP officers.

Use of pepper spray use has declined, for example, while taser use is on the rise.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. The 2020 figures don't include any race-based data, something Lucki has promised to look into. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"The fact that more use-of-force incidents are documented as deterrent methods is always a good sign. Though, based on the year-to-year comparisons, I do not see any major shift, that anything is changing in terms of use of force frequencies," he said.

"Context and other variables of interest are always important, and we can never get that from just looking at the numbers."

The 2020 figures don't include any race-based data — something Commissioner Brenda Lucki has promised to investigate.

"I do know from my own data collection on police use of force, specifically police shooting incidents, Indigenous community members were involved in at least 16 per cent of RCMP officer-involved shooting incidents in 2020," Laming said.

"In any case, Indigenous communities have been impacted greatly by police shooting incidents and quite possibly with other use-of-force interventions. But without any real and accurate race-based data, this is quite difficult to assess."

Changes to training

In April of 2021, the RCMP updated its training and its Incident Management Intervention Model — the protocol RCMP officers follow to assess risk when dealing with the public — to place more emphasis on communication and de-escalation.

"We're hoping to see the fruits of that and a continued decrease and greater use of de-escalation," Baldwin said. "There's always room for improvement."

The figures were pulled from the force's subject behaviour/officer response database, which relies on officers entering incident details into the force's internal management system.

Mounties are meant to record details of officer response incidents — what happened, how the subject behaved, the officer's response. Those details are based on each officer's individual perceptions at the time of the event.

An incident report is required any time an RCMP officer uses hard physical force (like kicking or punching) or a taser, a firearm, a police service dog or a "weapon of opportunity" — any object an officer deploys in the moment.

It's also mandatory whenever a soft physical control technique (soft takedowns, non-resistant handcuffing) results in an injury.

The force only began opening that database to the public in 2020 following calls for fundamental policing reform in the wake of mass protests against police brutality. The information the RCMP released in 2020 covered statistics up to 2019.

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