Last week, New Zealand police announced they were beginning the transition back to “normal” policing more than a month after a man shot and killed 50 people during the Christchurch mosque attacks. By normal, they mean the vast majority of police officers on the streets will go back to not carrying a gun.
That idea — that most cops should not be carrying guns unless the situation clearly warrants it — is commonplace in countries like New Zealand, Norway, Iceland and the United Kingdom. For years now, it’s been touted by some as a potential solution to the number of people in North America killed during interactions with cops.
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Those disproportionately likely to bear the brunt of the scrutiny and violence? Black people.
Think of Andrew Loku. In 2015, the black father of five, whom neighbours described as sweet, was holding a hammer in an apartment building, clearly distressed, when police entered and killed him. An inquest two years later ruled it a homicide. The inquest heard at length about how multiple neighbours tried to calm Loku down and had almost succeeded in getting him to relinquish the hammer when police arrived. Shortly after their arrival, Loku was dead.
Despite these cases and the public condemnation they inspire, the idea of disarming police officers hasn’t caught on in Canada. Should it? Could it?
Why people are calling for cops without guns
Right now, the people who are often getting shot by police are people in distress, those with mental health issues and those who are involved with drugs or “may be experiencing an episode,” said Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg who has researched the impact of the militarization of Canadian cops.
“Maybe if we didn’t load up every officer with a firearm, we could decrease those kinds of deaths almost in an instant,” he said.
That doesn’t mean police are walking around unarmed, says Angela Wright, a Canadian political analyst who wrote last fall about why cops should give up their guns.
How it would work if cops gave up their guns
There are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to take guns out of the everyday equation, Wright says.
What it doesn’t mean is sending cops out with bare hands or barring their access to guns in cases in which a situation arises that warrant them.
What it does mean, she says, is “creating situations that make fatalities significantly less likely.”
That could mean leaving a gun locked in a police car while patrolling with batons and pepper spray to decrease the likelihood that a cop shoots first and de-escalates later.
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“The way we’re going now, increasing funding to police forces and increasing the arming of police forces, is not actually doing much in terms of curtailing gun violence,” Wright said.
Last year was a particularly violent year in Toronto that saw a jump in crimes involving guns. In December, the police chief said officers recovered more than 500 handguns, up from just 222 the year prior. At the same time, homicides resulting from shootings increased nearly 30 per cent.
Why not everyone wants to disarm the police
Greg Brown, a post-doctoral researcher at Osgoode Hall Law School and also a former cop, is “unequivocal” in his rejection of the possible disarming of police officers.
“It’s a terrible idea,” Brown said.
“You’re dealing, in these kinds of situations, with very motivated individuals who are willing to risk their lives, most often to carry out a certain purpose … It’s a monumental mismatch.”
Look at the Moncton shooting in 2014 in which Justin Bourque went on a shooting rampage, killing three Mounties and injuring two others. The RCMP was later convicted of Labour Code violations for failing to ensure members had the appropriate training and equipment to confront an active shooter.
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“You want to be confronting the threat with the best quality weapon that you have,” Brown said, adding he understands there is opposition to the militarization of policing.
Concern over that opposition cropped up during the Labour Code trial, with then-RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson testifying that he was cautious when it came to arming his members with high-powered carbine rifles specifically because possible militarization can “distance the public from the police.”
Conflating police patrolling in tanks with police carrying “the necessary weapons to confront individuals with high-quality weapons and intent” is dangerous, says Brown, who rejects most arguments in support of taking guns away from police in most scenarios, saying their proponents “have, generally, a pretty strong anti-police bias.”
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“We would all love to live in a world where everything is sunshine and lollipops,” he said. “But society has shifted … I hate to read reports over and over again of police officers being murdered, quite often in circumstances where they are outgunned.”
Some of the places where police don’t routinely carry guns still have high levels of gun ownership and usage, says Walby, rejecting the idea that gun violence is a reason police need to always carry guns. In some of those places, he says, they are ditching the firearms in a bid to build trust.
“They want to decrease the types of almost random shootings that they get involved in, which damage their legitimacy, and they want to send a message of non-violence and peace rather than militarization and aggression.”
Why it would be hard to disarm Canadian police
For more than a year now, the Green Party of Quebec has been attempting to generate enough momentum to ban most police from carrying around guns. It’s a petition the party’s leader, Alex Tyrrell, says was borne out of the cases he keeps seeing crop up in Montreal in which a person with mental health issues is shot by police during moments of crisis.
“Having the police armed makes the police officers less approachable. People feel threatened by it,” said Tyrell, who would like to see a police force pilot a project that mimics New Zealand’s approach to cops and firearms.
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“We should try turning back towards community policing,” he said. “Seeing the guns right on the belts of the officers in the context where there are people being killed on a somewhat regular basis is really what damages relations.”
While a pilot is certainly feasible, Walby says it would take serious political leadership to get the ball rolling, and even then, buy-in from all levels of government would be required — and there’s a big barrier: the role of the gun in Canadian society.
Throughout the colonization of Canada, Walby says, “the gun actually was quite a prominent object in the daily lives of many people. Sometimes, they were holding it, and sometimes it was being pointed at them. There’s a kind of racialized dimension to this from the great march west.”
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Many still see the gun as a promise of security, he says, which makes even having the conversation about possibly making it less the norm for cops to wear guns at all times on their belt trickier.
“It doesn’t seem like the gun is going to be the answer to solving the gun problem,” Walby said. And yet:
“It’s almost kind of lodged in a lot of people’s psyches in Canada: guns keep us safe, therefore police should have guns. That kind of simple equation is going to be difficult to disrupt.”