Ottawa directed RCMP to ban neck restraints, tear gas and rubber bullets. What does it mean for B.C.?

·4 min read
Police use chemical irritants on protesters in Toronto during the 2010 G20 summit in this file photo. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press - image credit)
Police use chemical irritants on protesters in Toronto during the 2010 G20 summit in this file photo. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press - image credit)

Some B.C. experts say Ottawa's directive that the RCMP stop using neck restraints, tear gas and rubber bullets should have happened years ago.

Others, however, warn taking away some so-called "less-lethal" options may not be the right move.

Tonye Aganaba, with Vancouver's Black Lives Matter and Defund 604 Network, says such use-of-force techniques are all too common. She cited recent police actions in response to protests by old-growth logging activists on Vancouver Island.

"There was a lot of violence that happened at Fairy Creek," she said. "A lot of the same strategies that we're talking about right now were being weaponized," she said.

The Canadian government recently announced it will soon direct the RCMP to ban the controversial tactics. The move comes after years of increased scrutiny on police conduct, as well as protests critical of policing.

Last month, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino issued a new mandate letter calling on RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to end the police force's use of the techniques. He also called for developing national standards for the use of force.

Vancouver police confirm all three use of force techniques are used by officers in accordance with the B.C. Police Act.

But not everyone is on board with the directive.

Former RCMP officer Alain Babineau, a consultant on public safety and racial profiling issues, told CBC News last month he questioned the move, and wants to see the evidence on which the government based its decision.

"Now if we start limiting the intervention tools for the police, then we are limiting the options they have," Babineau said. "If firearms become the only option, then it's reasonable to think that things might go very badly at times."

'They can't even be used in war'

Meghan McDermott, with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, praised the decision. She said provincial policing standards need to be updated.

"The B.C. standards also allow for the use of tear gas, which is against international conventions," she said. "They can't even be used in war.

"But for some reason, the B.C. Police Services Division thinks that it's an alright tactic to be used in some situations."
    
The new mandate letter also calls for changes to recruitment "to better reflect the communities it serves, in particular Indigenous and Black communities, and recruiting more members with the skills necessary to combat sophisticated crimes."

Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press
Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press

"There is systemic discrimination, there is racism going on and that certain individuals and communities are disproportionately impacted," McDermott said. "They are traumatized."

For Vancouver Black community activist Nova Stevens, the federal government's recommendation around use-of-force techniques raises concerns, because they will not necessarily make police interactions safer.

"They should be the last resort," Stevens said. "But if you have to use some sort of weapon, let it be something that's not lethal, that's not going to take a life."

'You cannot remove those tools'

Former B.C. solicitor general Kash Heed, a former Vancouver police officer and one-time chief of West Vancouver Police Department, said police reforms are needed in Canada, but called the recent announcement a "knee-jerk reaction."

Police are trained to use a continuum of force, he says, that can begin with simply being present at a scene and using verbal communication; the continuum can escalate all the way to the use of lethal force.

Heed says Ottawa's recent announcement raises the potential for limiting non-lethal techniques.

"You cannot remove those tools from the tool belt of the police officers here in Canada," he said.

Aganaba says in order to better protect communities, non-policing solutions need to be implemented. Those could include using mental health experts, for example. She said there are jurisdictions, such as Oakland, Calif., that have launched crisis intervention services that are independent of police and can respond to calls for help.

"They're actually providing things that people need food, water, access to other services, de-escalation," Aganaba said.

Although the federal government doesn't oversee local forces, Mendicino hopes the directive to RCMP will serve as a blueprint for reform in other police services across the country.

The province says it will review any final direction that is provided by the RCMP commissioner to determine its impact on B.C.

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