By James Galwey

Do the police de-escalation tactics work?

Another march finishes in violence when police fire tear gas into the crowd

A peaceful march in Montreal at the end of May to honour George Floyd ended with police tear-gassing the crowd and a few idiots smashing store fronts along St-Catherine. There is no excuse for the ransacking and the demonstrators caught deserve everything they get but questions have to be asked on the heavy-handed tactics of the police. Is the use of hard force really the best tool in the police playbook for de-escalating tense situations? Are they not trained to do anything else?

 

After the brutal murder of Floyd by Minneapolis cops a few days before it was certain that emotions would be high so why was the police response so woefully inept, and predictable? Who was the bright spark who thought firing tear gas into thousands of protestors was the best way to de-escalate the tension and get the crowd to go home? Because all it did was galvanise the violent element to splinter off and start running battles with the police leading to tens of thousands of dollars of damage.

 

Was this preventable? Was the tear gas really necessary?

 

Violence begets violence. When police respond by escalating force — turning up in numbers, with dogs, or in their riot gear, beating their shields in unison and firing off tear gas — it leads to more violence, not less, and creates a feedback loop, where both sides become increasingly estranged. Police must take the lead; they must learn how to analyse a tense situation and defuse it. What would have happened, for example, if the police had done nothing except patiently wait for the crowd to disperse on its own accord? Ok, it might have taken a few hours but as it was the police were chasing people until past midnight so why not try a different tact and play the waiting game? Without the tear gas and riot squad to get the crowd all pumped up, in all probability the demonstrators would have drifted away home after a few hours anyway. 

Police overreaction is a common thread throughout many of their interactions.   

A few weeks previously, 17 police officers and a canine squad were the first responders at Montreal’s Cabot Square where an Indigenous woman with mental health issues was waiting for an ambulance to take her to hospital. The situation degraded quickly; the police wanted to take the woman by force. Visibly distressed, she picked up a broken bottle and threatened to harm herself.

It all ended peacefully thanks to the intervention of David Chapman, the director of Resilience Montreal, a nearby wellness centre, but the question must be asked: was this really the best source of action by the police? Did they really think 17 cops, tasers and dogs were going to reassure a frightened Indigenous woman? It is not as if police relations with the Indigenous population are great to start with. The outcome could have been quite different - too often it is.

In June, there was a deadly example of the police's acute inability to de-escalate a situation when Rodney Levi, a troubled but non violent person, was shot and killed by police in New Brunswick. And this comes on the heels of Chantel Moore's death at the hands of a policeman's gun. Then there is Nicholas Gibbs who was shot in Montreal's NDG neighbourhood in 2018; Pierre Coriolan who was shot in the hallway of his apartment building in 2017 and Alain Magloire, a homeless man killed in 2014 after a confrontation with police. Each time, the police responded to a call to deal with someone with a mental health issue and ended up shooting them dead. 

Quite apart from the racist element (Levi and Moore were Indigenous; Gibbs and Coriolan were Black), many criminologists say that a source of the problem lies in the training of police officers. Situations involving people with mental illnesses are much more likely to finish badly during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by officers. It is quite simple: the police are not trained to deal with people with mental health issues so why do we expect them to act like mental health workers?

Talking to The Guardian newspaper, Alexander McClelland, an activist and post-graduate researcher at the University of Ottawa, explained, “Police are trained to respond to complex social situations with force [but] the idea of applying violence in a complex social situation and expecting a nonviolent outcome is very confusing. It’s not logical.”

Montreal taxpayers shell out $790 million a year for its police force. Maybe some of that money could be used to train cadets in more imaginative ways, to get them thinking outside the box. The police need to address the problems of racism, their inability to read and defuse a situation, and their tendency to overreact. Maybe then there would be a few less anti-brutality marches

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Credit James Galwey