Police brutality acquittals show why we should abolish police

It proves what police abolitionists have been saying all along: the problem isn’t the unlawful excesses of a few, but the perfectly lawful violence routinely exercised by licence of the state
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Even in the midst of this global uprising against police brutality, Canadian police continue to brutalize while the Canadian legal system continues to prove it is incapable of holding police to account.

On June 26, 2020, a judge acquitted off-duty Toronto cop Michael Theriault and his brother Christian of aggravated assault against Black teenager Dafonte Miller, who was beaten so badly by the Theriaults that he lost an eye.

Justice Joseph Di Luca acknowledged in his decision that the violence was almost entirely “one-sided,” as “supported by the evidence that Michael Theriault had no injuries whatsoever” while Miller suffered a broken nose, broken orbital bone, bruised ribs, and fractured wrist in addition to permanently losing his eye. And yet, the judge somehow still concluded it had not been established beyond a “reasonable doubt” that the Theriaults’ initial attack on Miller had not occurred in the course of a “lawful arrest” or “self-defence.”

By consistently excusing police brutality, the “justice” system indicts itself.

Michael Theriault’s continued pummelling of Miller with a metal pipe, even after Miller was severely injured and begging neighbours for help, was deemed unlawful. But the judge was “not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that this assault caused the eye injury” and determined that “Michael can only be found guilty of assault and not aggravated assault.”

In other words, when the Theriaults beat Miller’s eye to a pulp it was lawful; when they continued to pulverize him it was unlawful, but because Miller had already been injured it was a lesser offence.

Similar logical contortions were performed to acquit Constable James Forcillo of murdering Arab teenager Sammy Yatim, who was shot eight times while alone with Toronto police in a streetcar in 2013 and armed only with a pocketknife. Forcillo’s first set of gunshots that killed Yatim was found to be lawful. His next five shots into Yatim’s unmoving body were ruled unlawful — but it was not murder, only “attempted murder,” because Yatim was already dead.

Between 2000 and 2018, 461 people died in encounters with Canadian police. Yet only 18 officers were ever charged and only two, including Forcillo, ever convicted. In 2018 and 2019, Ontario’s police oversight body, the Special Investigations Unit, had a clearance rate of over 96 per cent for officers involved in incidents causing “serious injuries.”

Police have been cleared or acquitted in cases in which they’ve shot unarmed people in mental distress, tampered with potential evidence of their fatal wrongdoing, and abused wrongfully arrested women like Roxanne Carr and Stacy Bonds with strip searches, leaving them naked or half-naked in jail cells for hours. One of the Ottawa officers implicated in both the Carr and Bonds cases, Sergeant Steven Desjourdy, was even honoured with a police letter of commendation while on trial for sexual assault.

In contrast, Muslims like Syrian woman Rehab Dughmosh — who was deemed mentally ill after she swung a golf club and a knife around in a Canadian Tire store — have been convicted of multiple terrorism offences despite causing no significant injuries.

By consistently excusing police brutality, the “justice” system indicts itself. It proves what police abolitionists have been saying all along: the problem isn’t the unlawful excesses of a few, but the perfectly lawful violence routinely exercised by licence of the state.

The prescription of body cameras is premised on a misdiagnosis: that police abuse persists because of a lack of evidence.

The supposed “rotten apples” are enabled by an entire ecosystem: the courts and oversight bodies that shield them, the police brotherhoods that rally around them, and the public purse that continues to pay them (for example, the Ottawa officer charged with killing Somali Canadian Abdirahman Abdi by repeatedly punching him in the head has collected more than $300,000 in salary since then).

Instead of defunding police, governments and city councils, including Toronto City Council, propose directing more funds to police by equipping them with body cameras. This despite research from the United States suggesting police-worn body cameras have a scant effect on securing convictions for police brutality. They fail to reduce the use of force, and may actually increase it — individuals with pro-police attitudes tend to interpret footage in a way that confirms their views.

The prescription of body cameras is premised on a misdiagnosis: that police abuse persists because of a lack of evidence.

Roxanne Carr and Stacy Bonds were physically violated on video camera, and it wasn’t enough. Sammy Yatim had eight bullets in his body, and it wasn’t enough. Dafonte Miller lost his eye, and it wasn’t enough. Decades of reports and inquests have amassed a wealth of damning evidence and repeat the same recommendations over and over again, and it isn’t enough.

No amount of evidence will ever be enough – because the problem isn’t an absence of evidence of police brutality, but the active production of narratives to justify it.

“On the stand, it felt like the case was against me,” Miller said following the release of the Theriault verdict. While the personal histories of Black, Indigenous, and racialized people are read through discriminatory stereotypes and weaponized to discredit them, the police’s own violent history as an institution is conveniently hidden or forgotten.

Modern police forces are the descendants of the slave patrols created to terrorize Black people into subjugation, the colonial militias and paramilitaries organized to expel Indigenous peoples from their lands, and the virtually unlimited power of patriarchs to discipline “their” women, children, and slaves.

Reforms such as body cameras amount to little more than better recording the crimes of an institution that should be abolished altogether.

Azeezah Kanji is a legal academic and journalist. Kiké Roach is a lawyer and the Unifor Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University.

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