Current Problems

Justice (25-42)

Researchers fill data gap on police-involved killings

February 23, 2023

‘When these numbers are not tracked, it’s a lot easier to dismiss the magnitude of the problem’

Michael MacIsaac, right, was one of 24 people killed in incidents involving use of force by police in 2013. His sister Joanne MacIsaac has been pushing for changes to police training and data tracking since his death.(Supplied by MacIsaac family)

CBC News: Joanne MacIsaac recalls the day in 2013 when she found out police had shot and killed her brother Michael. “Something like that changes you,” MacIsaac said.

Michael MacIsaac was shot dead by a Durham police officer while running naked through his Ajax, Ont., neighbourhood and wielding a metal table leg — a psychological episode related to his epilepsy, according to his family. 

MacIsaac was one of 24 people killed in an incident involving use of force by police that year, according to data now available online and dating back to 2000 thanks to the Tracking (In)Justice project. Since then, Joanne MacIsaac has pushed for changes to police training in de-escalation and mental health, and has urged police forces across the country to track instances where use of force leads to death.

“When these numbers are not tracked, it’s a lot easier to dismiss the magnitude of the problem,” she said. “When government can tell you how many moose there are on the island of Newfoundland but they can’t tell you how many people have lost their lives at the hands of police — yeah, I think that it’s an intentional omission.”

704 killed since 2000

The project was led by university researchers, community groups and civil liberties advocates. Their numbers show 704 people have been killed in incidents involving police use of force in Canada since 2000, an average of more than 30 per year. The number of people who died after encounters with police has risen annually since 2018, when there were 32 such deaths, and doubled from 2019 (34 deaths) to 2022 (69 deaths) deaths).

Alexander McClelland, a professor of criminology at Carleton University and the project lead, said the work started because there’s no government body or other institution tracking this information. McClelland said it’s difficult to understand why those numbers are rising, even as police face more scrutiny when it comes to violence.

“Because of a consistent lack of transparency, a consistent lack of available and consistent data from policing agencies, we can’t answer some basic questions like this one,” he said. “We’re hoping that this data sparks conversations and gets people looking further into why there has been a potential increase, what that means, and brings more scrutiny to the issue.”

BIPOC community disproportionately affected

Tanya Sharpe, founder and director of the Centre for Research & Innovation for Black Survivors of Homicide Victims (CRIB), said she wasn’t surprised to see the data showing that Black and Indigenous people make up a disproportionate number of those killed through use of force by police.

“It’s a consistent reality of systemic injustice for Black and Indigenous communities,” she said, adding that Indigenous and Black people make up 5.1 and 3.6 per cent of Canada’s population respectively, but account for 16.2 and 8.1 per cent of police-involved deaths.

“That’s what we’re really trying to highlight here with the Tracking (In)Justice website: the stark reality for those communities that have consistently been brutally, violently, victimized and marginalized across Canada.” Sharpe said the fact that there’s no official body tracking these deaths, thereby placing the onus for that research on the communities most affected by the violence, victimizes them again.

“The wherewithal of communities that have been disproportionately impacted by police use of force, who have tried to do grassroot efforts by collecting that data, it speaks to at least the strides that we have made a bit in asking, for example, here in Toronto, Toronto Police Service to collect data by race,” she said. “We have miles to go before we sleep. Miles to go.”

McLelland said even after the researchers’ work, the dearth of data hampers their ability to draw conclusions. “There’s a massive amount of unknowns in terms of race over variable of race,” he said. “We’re putting it out there into the world to highlight and shine a light on the fact that we need answers to some of these questions.”

Why isn’t the data tracked?

The internet offers instant access to reams of data, so why isn’t the number of people killed by police tracked? “We might say that we have greater access to information now, but actually we don’t,” McLelland said. “We want greater transparency for everybody to be able to answer these questions in their own community.”

MacIsaac is also dumbfounded that Canada still hasn’t taken steps to improve its data collection. “You look at Ireland, England, Australia, they know, but our government just does not. It refuses,” MacIsaac said. “I would love for someone to give me an argument or a reason why it’s not being tracked. I’ve asked. Nobody can tell me why.”

Scott Mills, strategic communications co-ordinator for the Ontario Provincial Police Association, said police officers “never go to work … looking for a confrontation or wanting to shoot somebody or have to use any type of lethal force, that’s just not in a police officer’s makeup.”

Police are “highly trained” in de-escalation techniques, he said. “It should be really pointed out here that a lot of these violent confrontations, they’re from the public, they’re calls from service. The police didn’t ask to go here … they were invited to go to these situations because they were out of control in the first place.”

CBC News was not directly involved in the project, but researchers said their work builds upon CBC’s Deadly Force database, which examined fatal encounters when police used force. 

The Tracking (In)Justice website notes “We reviewed cases in the CBC data to ensure they met our inclusion criteria. In rare instances, we removed cases because they did not meet our inclusion criteria related to police use of force.” 

With files from Thomas Daigle and Megan McCleister