Researchers close data gap on police-involved killings
Joanne MacIsaac recalls the day in 2013 when she found out police had shot and killed her brother Michael.
“It changes you,” MacIsaac said.
Michael MacIsaac was shot dead by a Durham police officer while running naked through his neighborhood in Ajax, Ontario, brandishing a metal table leg – according to his family, a psychological episode related to his epilepsy.
MacIsaac was one of 24 people killed in a police force incident that year, according to data now available online, dating back to 2000 thanks to the Tracking (In)Justice project.
Since then, Joanne MacIsaac has pushed for changes in police training in de-escalation and mental health, and urged police forces across the country to prosecute cases where the use of force leads to death.
“If those numbers aren’t tracked, it’s a lot easier to dismiss the scale of the problem,” she said.
“If the government can tell you how many moose there are on the island of Newfoundland, but they can’t tell you how many people have lost their lives at the hands of the police – yes, I think that’s a deliberate omission.”
704 dead since 2000
The project was led by university researchers, community groups and civil rights advocates.
Their figures show that since 2000, 704 people have been killed in police violence incidents in Canada, an average of more than 30 a year.
The number of people who died after encounters with police has increased annually since 2018, when there were 32 such deaths, and has doubled from 2019 (34 deaths) to 2022 (69 deaths).
The police became involved in deaths when force was used
Alexander McClelland, a professor of criminology at Carleton University and project leader, said work began because there is no government agency or other body tracking this information.
McClelland said it’s hard to understand why these numbers are rising, even when police are scrutinized more closely when it comes to violence.
“Because of a persistent lack of transparency, a persistent lack of available and consistent data from police agencies, we cannot answer some fundamental questions like these,” he said.
“We hope this data will stimulate conversation and get people to take a closer look at why there’s been a potential spike, what that means, and to dig deeper into the issue.”
BIPOC community disproportionately affected
Tanya Sharpe, founder and director of the Center for Research & Innovation for Black Survivors of Homicide Victims (CRIB), said she was not surprised to see the data showing that Black and Indigenous people make up a disproportionate number of those killed by use People understand police violence.
“It’s an enduring reality of systemic injustice for Black and Indigenous communities,” she said, adding that Indigenous and Black people make up 5.1 and 3.6 percent of Canada’s population, respectively, but 16.2 and 8.1 percent of the police-related deaths.
Police involved deaths by victim’s race
“That’s what we really want to highlight here with the Tracking (In) Justice website: the stark reality for these communities that have been consistently brutal, violent, harassed and marginalized across Canada.”
Sharpe said the fact that there is no official body tracking these deaths, putting the responsibility for this research on the communities hardest hit by the violence, makes them victims again.
“The resources of communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the use of police force and attempted to make grassroots efforts by collecting this data at least speak to the progress that we have made, for example, a little here in Toronto to ask.” , Toronto Police Service to collect data by race,” she said.
“We have miles to go before we go to sleep. miles ahead of us.”
McLelland said even after the researchers’ work, the lack of data hinders their ability to draw conclusions.
“There’s a huge amount of unknowns about race versus race variables,” he said. “We’re putting it out into the world to highlight and illuminate the fact that we need answers to some of these questions.”
Why isn’t the data tracked?
The internet provides instant access to tons of data, so why isn’t the number of people killed by police kept track of?
“We could say we have better access to information now, but actually we don’t,” McLelland said. “We want more transparency so that everyone can answer these questions in their own community.”
MacIsaac is also baffled that Canada still hasn’t taken steps to improve its data collection.
“You look at Ireland, England, Australia, you know it, but our government just doesn’t do it. She refuses,” MacIsaac said.
“I’d appreciate if someone could give me an argument or reason why it’s not being pursued. I asked. Nobody can tell me why.”
Scott Mills, strategic communications coordinator for the Ontario Provincial Police Association, said police officers “never go to work … looking for a confrontation, or wanting to shoot someone, or needing to use any type of deadly force, that’s just not in a cop’s makeup.”
Police are “highly skilled” in de-escalation techniques, he said.
“It really should be pointed out here that a lot of these violent confrontations come from the public, they are calls from the service. The police didn’t ask to go here…they were invited to go to these situations because they were out of control in the first place.”
CBC News was not directly involved in the project, but the researchers said their work builds on CBC’s Deadly Force database, which examined fatal encounters when police used force.
The Tracking (In)Justice website states: “We have reviewed cases in the CBC data to ensure they meet our inclusion criteria. On rare occasions, we removed cases because they did not meet our inclusion criteria regarding the use of police force.”