Policing the Police: a look at excessive force in Canada and the United States

Amid a slew of news reports involving violent (and lethal) police incidents in the U.S., many Canadians have pondered why these events seem to happen more down south, compared to here at home. On the other hand, some have suggested that the disparity is not as deep as it appears, and that some over-sensationalized American media outlets are to blame. So, what happens to be the reality behind the numbers?

According to a report by Public Safety Canada, the use of non-lethal force in the context of Canadian public policing is rare, occurring in less than 2% of encounters. In the U.S., a survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2015 found that 1.8% of respondents experienced non-lethal threats or use of force during encounters with police. Exact figures in both countries are unknown because neither country has a centralized database. In light of the information available, it appears police in both countries employ non-lethal use of force tactics in comparable numbers.

When it comes to fatal police shootings, however, the picture becomes much different. An analysis by the CBC showed there have been 461 fatal police encounters in Canada between 2000 and 2017, and that 71% of these deaths were the result of gunshot wounds. In contrast, 999 Americans died from police shooting in 2019 alone, and over 5,000 have died since 2015, according to a Washington Post database.  These are just two of many reputable databases showing similar stark numbers. Which begs the question; why does the United States have a fatal police shooting rate almost three and a half times higher than Canada on average?

The U.S. has a long history of celebrating gun culture, with many residents taking their second amendment rights very seriously. In the U.S., there are 120.5 firearms for every 100 people (the highest in any country), compared to 34.7 firearms for every 100 people in Canada. The very existence of so many civilian-owned guns directly contributes to a high number of police incidents, and in turn, to a high likelihood of a police officer possibly discharging his or her firearm. The scenario is worsened by a lack of stringent gun legislation in many U.S. states; a study by the US National Library of Medicine cites that legislative restrictions on firearms are linked to reductions in fatal police shootings.

Canada on the other hand has more restrictive gun legislation in place, and as of May 2020, the federal government introduced a prohibition on over 1,500 models of assault-style firearms. Although further research on this correlation is needed, it seems Canada’s tougher stance on gun ownership is related to its relatively low number of police shootings.

Another aspect to consider is the quality and consistency of training protocols. In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is the country’s federal police service, and all RCMP recruits complete 820 hours or 26 weeks of training in the same facility (known as Depot) located in Regina, SK. Municipal training requirements are slightly different in each province, but to give an idea, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) requires 40-44 weeks of training. Although the training itself is comprehensive and rigorous at both the federal and municipal level, there is certainly room for streamlining.

Conversely, many police departments in the U.S. have vastly different training programs in place. According to the FBI, there are more than 18,000 local police departments in the U.S., each being subject to different state, county, and city laws and codes, and having different policies, practices, and officer training programs. Additionally, American police recruits are generally required to complete around 700 hours or 19 weeks of training; however, these numbers can vary widely by jurisdiction and academy. Some U.S. law enforcement experts have said that uniformity among local police force training may not be a cure in and of itself, but that it could be a step in the right direction.

In the wake of recent events such as the murder of George Floyd and others in the U.S., and the violent arrest of Chief Allan Adam (of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation) in Northern Alberta, a spotlight has been cast on police in both countries. There have been calls to defund the police, albeit without consensus on the definition of ‘defund.’ While looking at the present data, many wonder to what extent racial bias contributes to excessive force and shootings by police in both countries.

In short, it’s too soon to tell. In the U.S., data and studies around police use of force have only materialized after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The majority of this data has been compiled by journalists and human rights groups, and although most of these databases are highly reputable, there is still a shortage of reliable race-based data today, particularly from the police. Regardless, these police shootings have garnered widespread condemnation, and countless Americans, and Canadians, are demanding that action be taken.

Although the issue of implicit bias may not seem as severe here in Canada, it remains an issue nonetheless. Recent incidents involving Indigenous victims of excessive force and fatal shootings by police have sparked our own protests. In a June 2020 statement, Federal Public Safety Minister, Bill Blair, said that ‘discrimination within Canada’s criminal justice system is abhorrent, unacceptable and unlawful and related police misconduct is indefensible and must be addressed.’  A few days later, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said, ‘I do know that systemic racism is part of every institution, the RCMP included.’ Ultimately, time will tell whether sentiments like these will result in actual policy changes.

Excessive force and fatal shootings by police are weighty and complex issues that demand an examination far more robust than the one presented in this article. Regardless of where these events occur, real solutions will require a concerted effort from those on all sides.

  1. Kiedrowski, J., Melchers R-F., Petrunik, M., & Maxwell, C. (2014). A Discussion of the Collection and Analysis of Data on the Use of Force in Encounters between the Police and Members of the Public. Ottawa, Ontario: Public Safety Canada. publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/cllctn-nlss-dt-frc/cllctn-nlss-dt-frc-eng.pdf
  2. Davis, E., Whyde, A., & Langton, L. (2015). Contacts Between Police and The Public, 2015. Bureau of Justice Statistics. bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=6406       
  3. Marcoux, J., & Nicholson, K. (2018). Deadly force: Fatal encounters with police in Canada: 2000-2017. CBC News. newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform-custom/deadly-force
  4. Tate, J., Jenkins, J., & Rich, S. (2020). 999 people have been shot and killed by police in the past year. The Washington Post. washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/
  5. Statista Research Department. (2020). Rate of civilians killed by the police annually in selected countries, as of 2019. Statista. statista.com/statistics/1124039/police-killings-rate-selected-countries/
  6. Gun Ownership by Country 2020. (2020). World Population Review. worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/gun-ownership-by-country
  7. Kivisto, A. J., Ray, B., & Phalen, P. L. (2017). Firearm Legislation and Fatal Police Shootings in the United States. U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5463213/
  8. Strengthening Canada’s Gun Laws. (2020). Public Safety Canada. publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/cntrng-crm/frrms/scgl-rlac-en.aspx
  9. Cadet Training Program Brief Overview. (2019). Royal Canadian Mounted Police. rcmp-grc.gc.ca/depot/ctp-pfc/index-eng.htm
  10. Police Officers. (2020). Vancouver Police Department. joinvpd.ca/police-officers
  11. Community Relations Services Toolkit for Policing. (n.d.). Policing 101. U.S. Department of Justice. justice.gov/crs/file/836401/download
  12. Ibid     
  13. Perrett, C. (2020). Police trainings across the US have no uniformity. Standardizing them is a step toward fixing the broken system. Insider. insider.com/national-standards-for-police-training-could-help-reduce-biases-2020-6
  14. Peeples, L. (2020). What the data say about police brutality and racial bias—and which reforms might work. Nature. nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01846-z#ref-CR2