Two years after the murder of George Floyd, the Canadian government says it will soon order the RCMP to ban the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and neck restraints.
In an interview with CBC News on the second anniversary of Floyd’s death in police custody, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said his office will in the coming days instruct RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to end the police force’s use of these controversial techniques.
Although the federal government doesn’t oversee local police forces, Mendicino said he hopes his directive to the RCMP will serve as a blueprint for reform in other police services across the country.
“There are some police services that have already taken those steps, but we think that with a new and modernized set of policies around the use of force by the RCMP, it can serve as a role model for other law enforcement branches across the country,” Mendicino told CBC.
When pressed for further details, the minister said he anticipates the RCMP will work toward ending its use of these techniques by the end of the year.
Figures obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin under access to information law show the neck restraint technique — while rare — is still in use in Canada.
The RCMP has argued that the neck restraint technique applies pressure to both sides of a person’s neck without restricting the airway and causes a brief period of unconsciousness that allows police officers to place an individual in handcuffs.
Every three years, the RCMP says, officers must undergo refresher training on the use of the neck restraint technique and tear gas.
The RCMP has been reviewing its use of neck restraints since Floyd’s murder. Sometimes referred to as the carotid restraint, the “sleeper hold” or the “blood choke,” it differs from the restraint used by the Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd.
Floyd died after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. Jurors found Chauvin guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and he was sentenced to 22-and-a-half years in prison. Chauvin is appealing.
According to a briefing note obtained by CBC News, the RCMP still allows its officers to place a knee on an individual’s upper body in some instances.
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Commisioner Lucki has said the carotid restraint hold is at the far end of the continuum of police use of force, on par with using a firearm.
“It’s when something serious or death or bodily harm is going to happen,” she said in 2020.
Reacting to the news, Alain Babineau, a consultant on public safety and racial profiling issues and a former RCMP officer, said he’s not sure whether eliminating these control measures is the right move. He said he wants to see the evidence on which the government is basing 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.”
Non-policing solutions emerging
During the interview with CBC News, Mendicino said his government is committed to reforming law enforcement in Canada — a position that clashes with calls from some Black Lives Matter protesters for police services to be stripped of their funding or even abolished.
Despite resistance from politicians, one police abolitionist said the movement has been successful in curbing the growth of policing and, in some cases, reducing its footprint in some communities.
Robin Browne, a leader in Ottawa’s Black community, said activists have been successful in freezing police budgets and eliminating the presence of police officers in schools.
“Progress has been made but there’s definitely work to do,” Browne said.
Browne and others say they would like to see communities redirect funds to non-policing solutions — such as a pilot project underway in Canada’s largest city.
This year, an $11 million pilot project was launched in Toronto after the deaths of Ejaz Choudry, D’Andre Campbell and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in encounters with police. All three individuals were experiencing mental health crises when they died.
The pilot project sees 911 and 211 operators connect some callers with community services for people in crisis — not with the Toronto Police Service. It’s considered one the most extensive non-police alternative response programs to emerge in Canada since Floyd’s murder.
One of the organizations involved in the pilot is the Gerstein Crisis Centre. Its staff runs a crisis hotline and sometimes sends a mobile team out to clients.
“Many communities, like the Black, Indigenous and people of colour, are already traumatized (by police),” said crisis intervention worker Darna Savariau-Daley. “So having somebody in a uniform, having somebody with authority, having somebody come in to say, you know, you have to go with us, it adds further trauma.”
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Taibu, a community health centre that focuses on Toronto’s Black community, participates in the pilot. Its executive director Liben Gebremikael draws a direct line between Floyd’s murder, the death of Korchinski-Paquet and other cases of Canadians dying in police custody.
“(It) put institutions and organizations in a position where they could no longer ignore the challenges that the community has been facing for generations,” he said.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.