Note: This story originally said police had increased their use of Tasers. That was incorrect. They had, in fact, increased their use of “Extended Range Impact Weapon,” a long-range weapon used to disable suspects. The story has been corrected.
With more public debate about police officers’ use of force and relations between visible minorities and police forces, The News took a data-driven look at how Abbotsford’s police department uses force and reflects its community. This is one of three pieces on those topics. For the others, and to see charts on how often Abbotsford’ police officers use force, click the links at the bottom of the story.
Abbotsford police officers are pointing their guns at suspects much more frequently in 2020 than in past years, according to figures obtained by The News. The figures show that APD officers are on pace to use force or the threat of force more in 2020 than any recent year.
Less than one per cent of police interactions end with police deploying such “intervention tactics,” the APD noted when they released the numbers to The News. And that intervention rate has remained below the one per cent mark since at least 2015, the last year for which data are available.
But the figures show that police are drawing their guns much more frequently in 2020 than in previous years. Officers are on pace to draw their firearms more than 90 times in 2020, compared to fewer than 70 such instances in each of the last four years. In the vast majority of cases, officers end up pointing their guns at suspects.
There are already investigations underway into at least two recent incidents involving the pointing of guns at innocent people.
In one case, police pointed guns at two Mexican farmworkers and deployed a police dog while hunting for smuggling suspects near the U.S. border. In another case, police stopped a man at work at gunpoint while looking for a break-and-enter suspect in the Peardonville area. Neither the farmworkers nor the man at work were connected to the incidents under investigation. The man at work said de-escalation tactics were not used.
Up to July 14 – before the farmworker incident but after the Peardonville one – Abbotsford police had drawn their guns 50 times in 2020. Three-quarters of the time a firearm was both drawn and pointed at a person. By mid-July, police were on track to draw their guns 93 times and point them more than 71 times in 2020. Both would be the highest such figures for which The News has use-of-force records. In 2015, police drew their guns 72 times. Over the following four years, guns were uunholstered at a rate of a little more than once a week – between 53 and 64 times a year.
Although there are provincial standards on when police can and should point a Taser at a suspect, there are no such standards for guns. Instead, instruction comes through training that draws, in part, on the National Use of Force Framework (NUFF) model created in 2000, according to a spokesperson from B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety.
“Firearms are classified as a Lethal Force option on the NUFF and can only be pointed at a subject when the officer reasonably believes, based on their perception of the totality of the circumstances of the situation, that his/her life or the life of another person is in danger of Grievous Bodily Harm or Death, which is the highest subject behaviour category on the NUFF.”
If officers draw their guns when the threshold for use isn’t met, they can be charged with a crime, the spokesperson said. But that occurs exceptionally rarely, despite the frequency with which guns are pointed by police. According to RCMP records obtained earlier this year by CBC, the RCMP pointed guns at suspects more than 5,000 times between 2017 and 2019.
The News has been able to track down just one recent instance in which a Canadian officer was charged with unlawfully pointing a gun; in 2017, a Calgary police officer was charged after allegedly pointing a gun at a driver who “allegedly made a rude gesture.”
APD spokesperson Sgt. Judy Bird said there have not been significant changes to use-of-force policies in many years.
Freill, Abbotsford deputy police chief, said she couldn’t talk about specific incidents because they are under investigation. But she said that “In today’s world and this environment today … our safety and public safety is paramount and in the middle of the night when you’re in a dark field or a dark area and you have someone where there’s a crime that’s just occurred, our officers are trained to be safe and look out for themselves. And use of force is never pretty, whether it’s justified or not.”
Tragically, Abbotsford is one of a handful of Canadian communities where police officers have been shot and killed in recent years. In 2017, Const. John Davidson was killed by a man in a shopping centre parking lot. Asked if that incident could have affected police decision-making and perceptions about the dangers faced by officers, Bird said she couldn’t comment as there is currently an ongoing external review to determine what can be learned from the incident.
The use-of-force figures suggested only a modest rise in the use of firearms between 2017 and 2019.
At the same time, the use of physical takedowns – especially “soft physical” tactics that don’t include impact with a body part, weapon or ground – has declined.
The APD is on pace to use 71 physical takedowns in 2020. That’s below the frequency of those tactics between 2015 and 2017 and slightly above those in recent years. In the past, the number of “soft” and “hard” physical control incidents has been about equal, but in 2020 there have been about double the number of “hard” incidents as soft controls.
Blood-constricting chokeholds are used extremely rarely, the figures suggest. Since the start of 2016, such “vascular neck restraints” have been used just seven times. Such a restraint hadn’t been used in 2020.
The use of police-dog interventions has also varied considerably. Just one dog intervention occurred in 2017. Last year, 14 dog incidents were recorded. Four of those involved a dog bite. In 2020, through to July 14, five dog interventions, including two bites, were recorded.
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