The Current

Officers must have options other than to kill, says former head of police board

The former head of the Toronto Police Services Board Alok Mukherjee says police forces have become isolated from the communities they are supposed to be serving — and they must reform to address the issue.
There needs to be a distinction between community policing and dealing with bigger issues like terrorism and national security, argues Alok Mukherjee. (Shutterstock)

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Police forces need to wean themselves off a reliance on lethal force, says Alok Mukherjee, or they risk alienating the public they are sworn to protect.

Mukherjee, the former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, said he is not arguing that a police officer's job is "to risk being killed."

"But it is the job of policing leaders to think about how to keep them safe," he said, "without teaching them that your only recourse is to kill the other person."

In his new book, Excessive Force: Toronto's Fight to Reform City Policing, Mukherjee argues that policing has become more complex and that forces must adapt to new challenges.

Alok Mukherjee was chair of the Toronto Police Services Board for ten years. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

"There needs to be a difference in the policing that involves big issues — like terrorism, national security — and policing that involves keeping our community safe," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

He pointed out that more and more "we are using the same uniformed police officers to deal with people who are not engaged in crime, [but] who are in distress."

A recent CBC investigation found that of the 461 people who died during interactions with police over the last 17 years, 70 per cent were dealing with mental health or substance abuse problems

Mukherjee argued that the culture of policing, and police training, puts an emphasis on confrontation.

"Putting them all in bulletproof vests that they're required to wear all the time, how does that shape their thinking about what they do?" he asked.

During his tenure, Mukherjee pushed for de-escalation training for officers, arguing that shouting commands wasn't always effective if a person was in distress. He advocates a calmer approach, such as offering them a cup of coffee, or a cigarette.

Training police on how to help people in crisis has improved, said Mike McCormack, the president of the Toronto police Association. (CBC)

Mike McCormack, Toronto Police Association president, argued that approach is unrealistic.

While he agrees that police need a "less-than-lethal" option, he told Tremonti that often a discussion isn't going to work.

There are limited time and options when trying to stop an imminent threat, said McCormack. He objected to "this whole notion that this is something out of a Die Hard movie," where police could be a few yards from someone and shoot a weapon out of their hand.

Training has improved, McCormack said, pointing out that officers now get annual coaching in how to communicate with people who are in a mental health crisis.

The Toronto Police Services Board recently approved equipping 400 more officers with tasers. (CBC)

In February, the Toronto Police Service approved equipping 400 more officers in Toronto with Tasers.

Despite safety concerns over the devices dating back over a decade, McCormack said the move is a positive one.

"The whole notion of saying: 'Well a Taser could be fatal' — well, it might be, and the jury's still out on that," he said. "But it gives you a less than lethal use of force option." 

"And that's what we need ... better outcomes for people who are in crisis and the police officers who are responding."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman.