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Earning public’s trust means being above reproach

The fatal shooting by police of a 20-year-old Kitchener man was just the third time such lethal force has been used since the Waterloo Regional Police were formed in 1973.

The incident is being examined by the province’s Special Investigations Unit, which should fully vet the shooting both for the family of the man involved and for the public’s trust in the police.

While police-involved shootings are rare here – just three non-fatal examples to go along with the three that ended in someone’s death – police are under increasing scrutiny given the ubiquitous cell phone videos and social media. Luckily, we’ve got nothing like the problems seen in the U.S., where police seem to be involved in controversial shootings as a matter of course. That’s most evident where racial minorities are involved, and the country seems more uneasy with that reality.

The latest example involves a white South Carolina police officer now facing murder charges for shooting a 50-year-old black man in the back as he fled following a traffic stop. A passerby caught the whole thing on a cell phone video, undermining the officer’s original story (his lawyer quit when the video clearly contradicted what the client has said).

The racial element only heightened the tension in a climate where the shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York sparked nationwide protests.

In the U.S., there are hundreds of officer-involved shootings each year – some 450 last year. But even that number is likely to be on the low side, as there are no reliable statistics kept. The most widely used number comes from the FBI, but that relies on voluntary reporting by some 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in the U.S.

The situation gets even murkier when trying to track how many of those shootings might have had a racial component – some statistics put the likelihood of a young, black male being shot by police at 20 times greater than a young, white male in similar circumstances.

Closer to home, Toronto has more violent crime and, though still not common, more incidents involving police shootings.

Most notably, perhaps, the killing in 2013 of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a TTC streetcar. There, too, video footage went viral. The many videos that quickly circulated put the police on very shaky footing if the goal was the usual defensive posturing. Anyone who’s seen the clips knows something was amiss: nine shots and a tasering seem like overkill for a teen with a small knife alone on a streetcar.

While the situation in Toronto is always more involved and volatile than policing in Waterloo Region, for instance, that’s not to say the concerns stop at the municipal boundary line. Stories of police misconduct, malfeasance and corruption anywhere – the RCMP, OPP or any municipal department – tars the entire system, and feeds the public’s growing distrust.

The Canadian public’s perception of police has become more negative, though the numbers have rebounded in the last few years from where they were following the widespread public relations disaster that was the G20 summit fiasco in June of 2010, a real low point. Still, there is much room for improvement, even here away from the tensions south of the border.

Nothing like that climate exists in Waterloo Region, but people here are equally subject to news about shootings. And we’re just as prone to speculation given the dearth of information. Clearing the air is essential.

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