Saturday 25 January 2020

Policeman who refused to shoot Toronto killer is hailed as a hero

A courtroom sketch depicts Alek Minassian, in white, appearing in court in Toronto yesterday. (Alexandra Newbould/The Canadian Press via AP)
A courtroom sketch depicts Alek Minassian, in white, appearing in court in Toronto yesterday. (Alexandra Newbould/The Canadian Press via AP)

Rob Crilly in Washington

A video posted on social media captures the terrifying moment an armed police officer comes face to face with the man suspected of driving a van into crowds of pedestrians in Toronto.

The suspect - 25-year-old student Alek Minassian - holds something in his hand, which he points at the officer as if it were a weapon.

He shouts that he has a gun and then says: "Kill me."

"No," comes the response from the officer, "get down."

"Shoot me in the head," the suspect shouts again as he appears to aim at the officer.

Seconds later he is in custody, with handcuffs on his wrists.

Vahe Minassian, father of Alek Minassian, leaves court. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Vahe Minassian, father of Alek Minassian, leaves court. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

The clip, which was captured by a witness and passed to CTV, the Canadian broadcaster, sparked a deluge of praise for the officer's restraint during a moment of high danger, with 10 people lying dead or dying.

Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, said: "This guy is a hero."

He added the officer had done as he was trained to do, and that the man himself humbly insisted he was "just doing my job".

The Toronto Police Service declined to name the officer but Gary Clement, a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police superintendent with 34 years' experience of policing, said he appeared to be a "seasoned and mature officer".

"It's quite apparent that the suspect was trying to be executed. He was really looking for 'suicide-by-cop,'" he said.

He added the officer responded in a "mature manner".

"I would say this individual met the right police officer," he added.

"Nobody knows how they're going to react. In this situation a lot of it comes down to muscle memory."

The peaceful resolution brought a torrent of praise on social media, particularly from the US where gun crime is commonplace and police are frequently accused of using disproportionate force.

"His restraint is nothing short of amazing... now imagine if they were in America," tweeted Aimee Vanderpool.

"Wow, at how these Canadian cops brought in this suspected killer," said Stuart Thompson in a post.

The difference in the gun legislation that splits the Canadian-American border is vast. In the US, officers are trained to fire if they believe there is a reasonable fear of an imminent threat to life.

Geoffrey P Albert, a University of South Carolina professor on high-risk police activities, told the 'New York Times': "It's a very simple analysis, a threat analysis.

"If a police officer has an objectively reasonable fear of an imminent threat to his life or serious bodily harm, he or she is justified in using deadly force.

"And not just his life, but any life."

Although the exact wording and protocol can change from state to state, this mantra has led to criticism and, ultimately, unarmed suspects being shot.

North of the border in Canada, the gun control legislation is far stricter. And the official line for police officers to follow is "necessary force".

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said the officer had done a "fantastic job" to gauge the "circumstance and environment" for a "peaceful resolution".

He said his officers were "taught to use as little force as possible in any given situation".

Canada's Criminal Code states: "Everyone who is required or authorised by law to do anything in the administration or enforcement of the law is, if he acts on reasonable grounds, justified in doing what he is required or authorised to do and in using as much force as is necessary for that purpose.

"Everyone who is authorised by law to use force is criminally responsible for any excess thereof according to the nature and quality of the act that constitutes the excess."

In 2000, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police endorsed a national framework for the use of force that became the basis for police agencies to "build their own use-of-force policies or standards".

The framework represents "how an officer enters into or is confronted with a situation, and how he assesses, plans and responds to incidents that threaten officer or public safety.

"It assists with training officers and provides a reference for decision-making and articulating their actions respecting use of force."

As well as the country's police officers seemingly being held to account more stringently, the general population is subject to stricter rules.

Last month, new gun controls were introduced for citizens who wanted to bear arms, including tougher background checks which involve screening people with a history of violence.

Retailers selling guns also have to keep records of their sales to give police access to them when needed.

With regards to the Toronto incident, Michael Lyman, professor of Criminal Justice Administration at Columbia College of Missouri, suggested in an interview that the officer may have acted out of fear of being publicly criticised for opening fire. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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