As people lay dying, the driver climbed out of his van and pointed an object at the police.
The man, later identified by authorities as Alek Minassian, had just plowed into a crowd of pedestrians on a sidewalk at more than 30 mph, killing 10 and wounding 15 more. “Kill me,” he screamed as he rapidly raised and lowered the object in his hand. Instead, a police officer moved slowly toward the man, weapon drawn.
“Get down,” he insisted. The man said he had a gun, but the officer continued forward. “I don’t care,” he said. “Get down.”
Within seconds, the suspect had raised both hands. The officer quickly got him onto his stomach and handcuffed. Not a single gun shot was fired in the exchange, earning the officer plaudits for his restraint.
Such actions are part of a concerted effort by the Toronto Police Service to have its officers de-escalate dangerous situations rather than open fire. In the past, Toronto police had faced widespread criticism for their use of force. In one incident from 2013, an 18-year-old named Sammy Yatim was shot nine times and killed by officers responding to a call claiming Yatim had a weapon.
“That and other high-profile police shootings in recent years prompted scrutiny of officers’ use of force, and led to formal calls to change police tactics in order to de-escalate standoffs,” the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reports.
Earlier this year, the Toronto Police Services Board passed a motion to provide hundreds of officers stun guns instead of guns. Toronto law enforcement officials have also conducted an extensive review of their “use-of-force options,” the CBC reports, and done several de-escalation training sessions. Police are “taught to use as little force as possible in any given situation,” Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said after Minassian’s arrest.
It’s unclear how many Canadians are killed by police each year. One investigation by the Independent newspaper in 2015 estimated that the number is about 25.
That’s higher than in many other developed countries, but it’s a tiny fraction of the men and women killed by U.S. police officers. In 2017, 987 people were shot and killed by police in the U.S., according to the Washington Post’s database on police shootings. This year, 344 people have been fatally shot by police.
Those numbers put the U.S. far outside the norm. In 2014, the Economist compared the United States with other developed countries. In Germany, police killed eight people. In Japan and Britain, officers went a year without fatally shooting anyone.
Experts attribute that disparity to a couple of things. Violent crime is much more common in the U.S. than in many other developed countries. Guns are easier to access, meaning that police are more likely to confront someone with a deadly weapon. There are concerns about racial bias, too — police in the U.S. shoot and kill a disproportionate number of black people, even if they are unarmed.
Police in the U.S. may also have a different attitude. As Michael Lyman, a professor of criminal justice at Columbia College of Missouri, told the BBC, American police officers would probably feel a “duty” to kill the suspect.
“Assuming the suspect is holding a gun and pointing it toward officers, it is concerning that the officer is not engaging the suspect with deadly force,” he said.
In Toronto, Monday’s violence-free arrest was hailed as a victory. Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, told the Globe and Mail that he had spoken to the officer who arrested Minassian. “I just did my job,” McCormack said the officer told him. “What I did was no big deal.”
McCormack disagreed. “People are right,” he said. “This guy is a hero.”