"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
On Monday a man didn’t get shot and die on a Toronto street. Despite the fact he drove through pedestrians, killing ten innocent people. He lived.
As a single police officer moved in to deal with the culprit, Alek Minassian, he claimed to have a gun. Demanding "Shoot me in the head" Minassian is brandishing something in his hand. He points it at the officer. Still, the bad guy doesn’t go down in a hail of gunfire.
"Get down”, officer Ken Lam shouts again and again, as he moves in to restrain Minassian. Lam switches to his baton, holstering his pistol before he applies the handcuffs.
It's not gone unnoticed that this scenario would have played different some 20 miles away in the USA. In all probability, the culprit would have received a single verbal warning before the shooting started. He'd likely be dead.
Some have argued this incident gives weight to the view that the US police are using excessive force. I'm not so sure. Comparisons are fraught with contradictions when so many variables come into play.
During my police career, I was never a ‘gun-guy’. Many of my colleagues took the same view as me; the gun was a tool you'd rather not deploy. While I enjoyed the range courses, the day-to-day carriage of a firearm could prove a nuisance. I can only recall drawing the gun from its holster twice for an operational reason. I never fired it except at the range.
In the early days of my career, the under-powered Colt 38 was secured by a lanyard in a flimsy leather holster. The lanyard was a sensible move. Chasing a pickpocket down Jordan Road, my revolver clattered along behind. Not a good look.
In the 1980s our revolver training consisted of firing at paper targets. You’d be either static standing or kneeling behind a barrier. You fired a single shot, re-assessed and fired again. The target didn’t move except to swivel into view. None of this simulated the distractions we’d face on the streets; traffic noise, people in the way and mayhem.
Later came the video ranges. These proved a vast improvement with evolving stories and real human shapes. Things moved, the lighting changed, and noises acted to distract. The video range put you in the scene to test that you used the appropriate ‘degree of force’. As events unfolded, you’d switch to baton, pepper-spray or revolver. And yet, we never fired multiple-rounds in rapid succession. It was either single shot or two at most. Once hit, the culprit went down. The lights came on as you breathed a sigh of relief.
In 2010, I tasted a different approach to gun training. As 'active shooter’ incidents escalated worldwide, we needed to understand the best international practices. As part of a fact-finding exercise, I found myself undergoing training with a US Police Force. Other officers went elsewhere.
I received a warm welcome. A Brit serving in the Hong Kong Police is an exotic creature to our American cousins. With cultural reference being Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, it took some time to disavow them of my Kung Fu skills. They qualified me on the Glock pistol. Then my actions somewhat perplexed the instructors.
Put through a scenario in the 'combat house' with an actor firing paintball rounds back at me; I soon discovered my single shot approach didn’t work. With a moving culprit in cover, he kept coming back at me.
Covered in bruises, I soon learnt to multi-fire. Double-tap, keep going until he was down and out. Then quick reload. Put through the drill again and again; car stops, room clearing and always rapid fire. The thing with training is that it works. You revert to things practised as muscle memory kicks in.
You can argue that the US police approach is aggressive, that it will result in deaths. This assessment is a misreading not only of the training but the logic behind the drills.
In the US, because of the prevalence of guns, officers face a significant threat at each encounter. Moreover, events have shown that when they don't act the consequences can be tragic. Officer survival is paramount, it forms the basis of training and shapes policy. Some are on edge with disproportionate responses. Thus the deaths of young black men encountering US Police remains an issue of grave concern.
Officer Lam of Toronto deserves recognition for his cool and well-executed capture of Minassian. But to extrapolate that to cover all incidents is wrong. Every event a police officer encounters is different. He or she doesn't have the luxury of time or the ability to consult before making fatal decisions. For that reason, I'm reluctant to be judgmental of the officer who opts to fire.
Personally speaking, respect belongs to the officer who is actually in the arena, who faces a threat with adrenaline pumping. Striving valiantly to do the right thing, some will err, some come up short or adjudged incorrect. Still, they deserve credit. Even failing merits acclaim over those cold and timid souls who are critical but neither know victory or defeat for fear.
If any lessons or comparisons are to be drawn, it may be worth assessing the training and coaching given officers. Escalating to firearms can become a reflex action if the threat is the only issue in an officer's mind. The quality of training must have an impact on the outcome of incidents. In the US training is far from consistent, with smaller police forces struggling to provide standardised regular coaching.
US Police academies spend on average about 110 hours training recruits on firearms skills and self-defence. Conflict management, mediation and appreciation of situations are covered in eight hours. Meanwhile, the Canadian Police training places a high emphasis on de-escalating situations. Canada’s far lower rate of gun crime certainly plays a role in shaping their approach. Yet it’s something the US needs to consider in the long-term if its to reduce the average 980 people killed each year by police shooting.
A side-note: Officer Ken Lam’s father served in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.