Observers warn against knee-jerk reaction to tragic police shootings

The brazen shootings of Canadian police officers remain tragic exceptions that shouldn’t result in overreaction, observers cautioned as the shooting of two Mounties in Alberta thrust the issue of officer safety into the national spotlight.

The brazen shootings of Canadian police officers remain tragic exceptions that shouldn’t result in overreaction, observers cautioned as the shooting of two Mounties in Alberta thrust the issue of officer safety into the national spotlight.

The incident north of Edmonton led the head of the RCMP to wonder how the shooter, who according to court documents was a violent criminal awaiting trial on multiple charges, was able to obtain a gun and remain on the streets. The man was found dead hours later.

The shooting has already been compared to the deaths of three RCMP officers in Moncton, N.B., last June and the killing of four Mounties in Mayerthorpe, Alta., in 2005. Other instances in which officers have been killed in recent years include the shooting of two police officers in Saskatchewan in 2006 and the gunning down of a Mountie in Hay River in the Northwest Territories in 2007.

Commenting on the latest shooting, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson suggested the shooter’s criminal history, including a series of overlapping firearms bans, may lead to an examination of the police and justice system.

But observers urged against a knee-jerk reaction.

“There will always be unexpected cases. I do not want to see militarization flowing as a result of these every-once-in-a-while hideous situations,” said Margaret Beare, a law professor at York University.

“It’s one thing to say somebody is really dangerous and yet they’re not doing anything for which they can be immediately charged and held. There’s nothing that can be done and nor probably does our society want arbitrary decisions being made about people too dangerous to walk around until they’ve actually done something.”

Police organizations point to the recent deadly shootings of officers and other violent confrontations that do not result in officer deaths or injuries, as proof that policing has become a riskier profession.

But experts say statistics suggest otherwise. Police deaths from shooting incidents in particular have decreased over the last few decades, said Irvin Waller, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.

“What we’ve really had is Mayerthorpe, Moncton and this one and it gives the impression of a lot of police officers getting killed, but actually in statistical terms they’re at low risk,” he said. “You get blips from time to time but it’s basically been trending down.”

Officers, however, say more people have access to illegal guns and encounters with armed individuals are dangerous even when there’s no loss of life.

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, said shifting societal attitudes among would-be criminals may also be contributing to the increased risks in policing.

“It’s my sense that people are more willing to use firearms. They’re more willing to use firearms generally, but also more willing when they’re interacting with police officers,” he said.

“I think we’ve lost, in my view, the appropriate balance between creating an environment where there’s the appropriate level of deterrence and consequence …The consequences aren’t enough to deter people from engaging in these kinds of activities.”

A continued investment in policing and hiring and retaining full-time officers is needed to ensure police forces are well equipped to deal with the risks officers face, Stamatakis said.

Improvement in the judicial system would also help police, said Clive Weighill, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police

“We really need a quicker turnaround in the courts. Sometimes these cases are taking years to finish, which leads people to be out on bail while they’re waiting to have their trial,” he said, adding that it was also important to have strong transitional plans in place for those re-entering society after serving a sentence.

Weighill added that more resources to help police deal with combating the drug trade and mentally ill offenders would also help officers on the front lines.

“Substance abuse and mental health are probably our two biggest drivers of encounters with police that could end up with violence,” he said. “In some instances we’re almost becoming like a psychiatric social worker.”

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