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Editorial: Training made the difference

Toronto Police Constable Ken Lam responded with astounding calm last week after a clearly mentally disturbed suspect used a rental van to plow into pedestrians, killing 10 and injuring 14.

His calm and deliberate response was no accident. It was the result of training that police departments in Western New York and across the country should be looking to copy.

The suspect begged Lam to shoot him – in the head. Lam, a traffic officer in the north end of Toronto and a seven-year veteran of the force, did not take the bait. There would be no “suicide by police.” Not this time.

The Toronto officer’s reaction, reflective of that city’s two-year effort to employ less aggressive tactics, provides a training model. It is the kind of training pushed by the Police Executive Research Forum being adopted by the New York Police Department. It is the kind of professional training the Buffalo Police Department and others should pursue.

Last Monday, a white rental Ryder van ran into a pedestrian crossing the street and then drove onto a sidewalk and began plowing into people. The awful act seemed inexplicable – at first. Later it would be reported that the man identified as the van driver was a computer studies graduate who demonstrated hostility toward women on his Facebook page moments before the attack.

The suspect, Alek Minassian, 25, and he has been charged with 10 counts of first degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder. Torontonians will not forget how the actions of one individual took the lives of so many and devastated others. It is an uncommon event in Canada.

Yet Constable Lam was prepared. He did not rush toward the van driver. He did not fire his gun. He walked back to his car and turned off its siren to help de-escalate the confrontation. He did it despite the suspect telling the constable: “Kill me,” and when the officer refused, telling him to get down, the suspect yelled that he had a gun in his pocket. He wanted police to shoot him in the head. Lam’s response? “I don’t care. Get down.”

Police experts weighed in later, admiringly. They included the man who helped devise the police training in Toronto.

What ended being a peaceful arrest happened because the Toronto Police Department trains it officers to handle such situations professionally. Lam, as reported by The New York Times, would have received one day of de-escalation and mental health training. The training was drafted under Mike Federico, a retired deputy chief of the Toronto police. It was put in place by the city’s police department in 2016.

The reason for the training, at least in part, was in response to several high-profile confrontations between Toronto police and civilians. Those incidents ended in death.

Recently, the Police Executive Research Forum conducted a major study funded by the Department of Justice to examine how police officers in the United Kingdom respond to mentally ill calls for service and potential threats with knives and other weapons. As a result, PERF developed a new training program that the NYPD uses, based on de-escalation.

Police work in Canada is much different from the United States, where guns and violence are both more prevalent. But there is still something valuable to learn from Toronto’s Constable Lam and the training he received.

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