2 March 2011
Justified use of force, part I
by Christine Klassen
“Authority to use force separates law
enforcement officials from other members of society…” (“Canada’s
National Use-of-Force Framework for Police Officers” The Police Chief magazine August 2010)
Kenora resident Helen Proulx was trying to slit her wrists with a small knife
when a neighbour called the police on 7 June 2010. The lone responding officer commanded Proulx to drop her
weapon. She started to walk towards the officer and the officer fired two
shots, wounding Proulx in the arm and shattering her pelvis. The
neighbour saw Proulx fall face first onto the sidewalk. Police charged Proulx
with assault. Two years earlier, on 16 February 2008, Toronto resident
Byron Debassige had been singing and asking for change when the police arrived.
He had stolen three lemons and then pulled out his pocketknife when the
shop clerk chased him onto the street. Two constables confronted him on
the path at Oriole Park. When they commanded him to put down his juice
bottle, he tucked it under his arm and pulled the knife out of his pocket.
The officers drew their guns and shouted at him to stop and drop his
knife, but Debassige kept walking toward them. They fired four shots, hitting him twice in the torso. He died from his injuries. In both cases, the Special
Investigations Unit (SIU)* found the shootings, “justified.”
Proulx was suicidal and Debassige suffered from untreated schizophrenia.
Both were intoxicated. The Canadian Mental Health Association
(CMHA) issued a policy statement about crisis intervention for police a month
after Debassige was shot. It says, “Once mental health issues are
suspected or identified, much greater emphasis needs to be placed on the use of
de-escalation techniques through communication rather than physical control and
use of any type of weapon.” De-escalation techniques, it adds,
should be “very different from the communication techniques generally used
in police interventions…[They] require listening skills and ways of
interacting that may be out of sync with police practices of command and
The National Use of Force Framework diagram characterizes the practices
criticized by the CMHA. It categorizes possible officer responses to
various levels of perceived resistance or non-cooperation. While it
leaves much to the judgment of individual officers, it requires them to take
control of the situation as quickly as possible. Thus, police officers
are almost obliged to respond to any kind of non-cooperation with some kind of
Maybe these police officers were within the bounds of the National Use of Force
Framework and are therefore in that sense “justified.” But, as
I read these news stories, I am alarmed by a justice system and a social
Framework that leads police officers into tragic use-of-force escalations, when
non-lethal and more effective interventions are available to them.
Police officers for the most part, do not want to seriously injure or kill
people. However, the police uniform and gun limit their options.
When dealing with mentally ill individuals, police who are trained to
react with deadly force make possible “suicide by cop” for people seeking to
end their own lives.
Police officers must find better ways of responding to people who are in mental
health crises, ways more in line with the CMHA recommendations laid out in
March 2008. If the authority to
use force isolates police officers, then we must ask what it will take to bring
them back into a community of support and accountability.
*The SIU investigates cases where police
allegedly injure or kill civilians.