Last week, all of Toronto's attention turned to the conviction of Toronto police officer James Forcillo, who was found guilty of attempted murder in relation to the shooting death of Sammy Yatim. Yatim was an 18 year old young man who only possessed a small pocket knife, when he was fatally shot three times in the heart. The officer then shot him 6 more times and was joined by another officer who then tazered him.
The temptation is to think: one bad apple. It’s not. Only three days after the verdict, four Toronto police officers were arrested with seventeen charges related to planting evidence on a suspect and obstructing justice (lying) – all suspended with pay. What seemed to get even less attention were the three Toronto police officers who were charged in a gang sexual assault on female member of the Toronto police force and, like their colleagues, were all suspended with pay.
This police racism, misconduct and violence also isn’t something new. There is a historical precedent for this type of behavior - one that took aim the country’s Indigenous population. In 1989, for instance, the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr., Prosecution found that the criminal justice system failed Marshall “at virtually every turn” due “to the fact that Donald Marshall, Jr., is a Native." Donald Marshall Jr., was a Mi'kmaw man who spent over a decade in prison after being was wrongfully convicted of murder. Then in 1999, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba concluded that: “The justice system has failed Manitoba’s Aboriginal people on a massive scale.” Again in 2004, the Saskatchewan Commission on First Nations and Metis Peoples and Justice Reform noted we still have the same problem. “[R]acism is a major obstacle to healthy relations with the First Nations and … police organizations,” its report stated. After the shooting death of unarmed land defender, Dudley George, the Ipperwash Inquiry concluded in 2007 that “cultural insensitivity and racism was not restricted to a few ‘bad apples’ with the OPP but was more widespread.” It's #2016, andpolice racism and violence against Indigenous peoples has spread to women and racialized minorities everywhere.
The problem is so critical in Toronto that there is even an organization called Affected Families of Police Homicide which helps advocate on behalf of teenagers, many unarmed, who have lost their lives to police action. Many of these victims come from Indigenous or racialized backgrounds. This isn't a Toronto phenomenon, though it appears to be particularly acute in Toronto. In the same year, a York Regional police officer who had served on the force for 31 years was charged with sexual assault of a minor. The little girl was not even 12 years old. Then there's the Peel Region Police Officer Craig Watier charged with child porn related offences; Ontario Provincial Police officer Mark Maltais charged with a child porn offence - but suspended with pay; and Toronto Police officer Darious Kisielewski charged with making and possessing child porn.
One of the more disgusting elements of police racism and violence in Ontario is the high degree of impunity the police seem to enjoy - all while getting paid. At the moment, there are at least 50 police officers suspended with pay in Ontario, at a cost of over $4.5 million to taxpayers.[xii] The primary concern seems to be that these men get paid, not the racialized people, women or children who are their victims. It should come as no surprise that we have a crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in this country - when the police themselves become the predators. Whether it's outright targeting of Indigenous women and girls for violence, or refusing to protect them by locating the missing and convicting the killers - police racism and violence is exacerbating an already crisis issue.
And it's not just Ontario's regional or municipal polices forces.The RCMP, Canada's national police force, is rampant with police racism and violence. Manitoba RCMP Constable Kevin Theriault arrested an Indigenous woman at a house party for “intoxication,” locked her in a police cell, and showed up later in his street clothes and took her to his home with the intent to have a “personal relationship” with her. Fellow officers encouraged him. Even his senior officer said, “You arrested her, you can do whatever the fuck you want to do.” His punishment was the loss of only seven days’ pay.Human rights organizations have documented numerous reports of abusive policing in British Columbia by the RCMP who are accused of raping and assaulting Indigenous women and girls in custody. No one was brought to justice in those cases.
Furthermore, this phenomenon is not unique to British Columbia and Ontario, as eight Quebec police officers were recently suspended after numerous allegations of sexual assault against Indigenous women were brought forward. In Nova Scotia, RCMP were suspended for sexual assault of co-workers. In Alberta, a 34-year veteran with RCMP was charged with sexual assault of 12 year old girl. Even within the RCMP, sexual assault and harassment against their own female officers appears to be rampant as over 300 women have filed a class action lawsuit.
Evidence of the widespread nature of police violence against women in general is staggering. But who are we going to complain to? Experts tell us that the conviction rate against police officers in Ontario and the RCMP is astronomically small. Then when we see a provincial court judge from BC imprisoned for sexually assaulting Indigenous girls between the ages of 12 and 16, we begin to wonder what the options are for society.
This phenomenon of police violence and corruption appears to be widespread in Canada, just like the United States. Many grassroots groups and organizations have come together to shine a light on the victims of police violence, corruption and racism. Black Lives Matter became “the rallying cry of the new movement against racist police violence.” Disarm Toronto Police, Cop Watch, Police Watch, and Citizens Against Police Brutality - social media is growing with citizen groups organizing all over North America to bring awareness to police violence and address impunity. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what we know is happening in Ontario - the frightening part is what we don't know. How many more victims are there who never brought their complaints forward thinking no one would believe them over a police officer?
Ontario, you have a problem. So far, no one from the mayor to the police chief to the Premier has stood up and expressed the horror the rest of us feel by the increasing police violence in this province. Gang rape is not something that should be heard in conjunction with police officers. Someone needs to show some leadership and clean up the cop shop. Police are hired to protect Ontarians and keep them safe from predators - not become the predators. This situation has reached crisis proportions and needs an immediate and comprehensive emergency action plan that includes independent investigations and legislative amendments. The days of police investigating police must be over. Every rape, assault or murder of citizens in Ontario, committed by police is now on the hands of those who have the power to do something about it.
It's your move Ontario. #racismkills
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is an Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.