A Toronto police officer is being praised around the world for successfully de-escalating the scene of a deadly van attack Monday — without shooting.
Const. Ken Lam carried out the arrest of 25-year-old suspect Alek Minassian after he allegedly ran over a crowd of pedestrians on a stretch of Yonge Street. Videos captured from the scene show an intense exchange between the two, with Minassian threatening the officer with an unidentified object.
“Kill me,” the suspect yells.
“No, get down,” the officer replies.
When the suspect said, “I have a gun in my pocket,” the officer responded: “I don’t care. Get down.”
Lam was able to restrain him within minutes.
The exchange was quickly praised around the world, and within Canada.
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders acknowledged that officer’s efforts in a press conference Tuesday afternoon, attributing much of the actions to training.
“Our training, at the police college as well, speaks to de-escalation. More people will be dealing with de-escalation than pulling out their firearms in most police agencies in Toronto,” he explained. “It is a focal point of our training piece.”
Saunders explained that there is no “cookie cutter” response for dealing with such situations, and officers are told to evaluate their actions based on proximity to a suspect and the threat of violence.
Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack told Global News that the incident was “a good piece of police work.”
He said officers are required to attend a three-day in-service training program — a program that talks about de-escalation and training free from “biased policing.”
“They discuss and look at real-time scenarios, they talk to people that are mental health professionals, professionals that deal with people in crisis.”
Marc Parent, former police chief of the Montreal Police Service and CEO of Commissionaires Quebec, said officers are also trained to determine “appropriate level” of force for a given situation. He called Lam’s work “remarkable.”
Officers also practice virtual scenarios in a high-stress environment where their actions can be evaluated and they can receive feedback, Parent explained.
“With scenarios, feedback, coaching, training all comes together so your skills are getting better,” he said.
But training can only go so far — both Parent and McCormack emphasized the officer’s experience played a role in the matter.
“With a high level of stress — with the tunnel vision effect — if you do not practice those kind of scenarios it’s really hard to have an appropriate intervention,” Parent explained.
McCormac said Toronto officers deal with millions of calls a year for people in crisis.
“This notion that we shoot first and ask questions later is really not true,” he explained. “In 2016 we had 1166 use of force reports in regards to firearms, and only seven incidents involving armed persons where our officers used their firearms – so that’s less than 0.5 per cent.”
Monday’s outcome is very different from what happened on a Toronto street five years ago.
Sammy Yatim was armed with a pocket knife and holed up in a streetcar when Toronto police constable James Furcillo fired nine bullets at the teenager. Yatim died and Forcillo was convicted of attempted murder.
That incident put police training under more scrutiny.
Critics said there needed to be more focus on “de-escalation” techniques, especially in cases where mental illness could be a factor.
From that incident stemmed the Iacobucci report, which, among other points, called for switching the in-service training from two days to three – as Toronto police have done, McCormack said.