Black Lives Matter has a Canadian offshoot in Toronto—a.k.a. BLMTO. And recently the group initiated a multi-day protest outside of Toronto Police headquarters, in light of the decision by the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) not to press charges against the officer who shot and killed 45-year-old Andrew Loku, a black man. (The SIU is the civilian oversight agency responsible for investigating circumstances involving police that have resulted in a death, serious injury, or allegations of sexual assault of a civilian in Ontario, Canada.) The protest eventually culminated in a march to Queen’s Park (where Ontario’s provincial government is housed), whereupon arrival Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, along with other members of her government, came outside to meet BLMTO leaders. During the outdoor rendezvous, the Premier was clear about wanting to schedule a meeting with the group’s leaders.
As can be seen by the official statement from the SIU, it is clear that the decision not to press charges against the officer was the right one. The circumstances of Loku’s death are often framed in terms of careless, unlawful use of lethal police force. I believe that those who frame the unfortunate event in these terms are succumbing to the hindsight bias and omitting or distorting crucial details, however. Many observers and commenters fail to describe the event in its proper context, which makes it easy to overlook the fact that police were called to assist two individuals who were being threatened by the hammer-wielding Loku, and, upon arriving, were in tight quarters—specifically, situated in a hallway with their backs facing a door leading to a stairwell. The officer that shot Loku was in these tight quarters when Loku suddenly started approaching with the hammer, and, despite the officer’s calls for him to stop, Loku defiantly continued closing in while even taunting the officer. BLMTO and its supporters should honestly ask themselves how they would have reacted in such circumstances, time pressured as they were—would they really have risked getting bashed in the head with a hammer, or would they have shot to kill? It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback when one has a distorted picture of the event and the luxury of distance. To be clear, Loku’s death was unfortunate. But an unfortunate outcome, in and of itself, is not necessarily tantamount to foul play. And yet, many have made the inference from unfortunate outcome to unlawful use of lethal force on the part of the officer in question—but it’s an inference that can only be made by ignoring or distorting the actual circumstances of the event, or by imposing a naïve, unrealistic standard of culpability on the officer (and officers in similar circumstances).
As a side note, one can’t help but wonder how many police shootings of civilians could have been prevented had individuals suffering from mental health problems been housed in institutions where they can be cared for—but that’s a whole other complicated issue that I won’t deal with here. After all, as the CBC reports, 40% of those shot and killed by police are people experiencing mental health crises. And to be fair to police forces across North America, there has been a growing movement to incorporate training and institute policies that would reduce the number of unfortunate shootings of those with mental health problems—and indeed Toronto Police are following suit on this pressing issue. Furthermore, and as will later become clearer when we discuss the cognitive biases of relevance, the media is only wont to report on and sensationalize cases like the Loku shooting. What is not reported on is the vast majority of interactions between police and individuals with mental health issues that get resolved peacefully and with care.
In view of the foregoing, however, what, precisely, are BLMTO’s demands, and, just as importantly, how reasonable are those very demands?
BLMTO have recently provided a list of specific demands. I will address them in seriatim.
Demand number 1: Release of the name(s) of the officer(s) who killed Andrew Loku.
The first demand is flat out negligent. There is a good reason why the SIU does not release the names of officers they investigate. To think that releasing the name of the officer in the Andrew Loku case would not have an adverse effect on their life and safety is to strain credulity. The anonymity provided by the SIU is designed to foreclose the possibility of ‘vigilante justice’ by lunatics who think that the only just outcome of investigations is reputational damage, physical harm, or, worse, death to the officer(s).
Demand number 2: Charges laid against the officers who killed Loku.
This demand is comical and screams of politicization, not justice. Mirroring the larger BLM movement in the United States, this BLMTO demand is tantamount to elevating the group as judge, jury, and executioner. As the high profile case of Michael Brown showed, BLM and its militant supporters felt they already had the correct verdict in advance of due process. And since the legal system issued the correct verdict—Officer Darren Wilson was acquitted of charges—the results were predictable (and similarly predictable was the Freddie Gray ‘protest’, also stoked by BLM rhetoric). Anyone with an inkling of how vitally important due process is to a civilized society ought to see through the mob authoritarianism of a segment of the BLM movement, if not also its core. (Protest in wake of the Ghomeshi trial verdict serves as another recent Canadian example of protesters who are openly hostile to due process and rule of law. For people like this, the only verdict that is acceptable is the one that they have decided on beforehand—the one that aligns with their self-serving ideology.)
(For current purposes, I will be skipping another, similar demand of BLMTO: Immediate release of the name(s) of the officer who killed Alex Wettlaufer, and charges to be laid accordingly.)
Demand number 3: Public release of any video footage from the apartment complex where Loku died.
This demand is unacceptable for the same reason why demand number 1 is unrealistic and negligent: Video identification of the officer who shot Loku would allow would-be vigilantes to take matters into their own hands and place said officer’s safety and well-being in jeopardy.
Demand number 4: Adoption of the African Canadian Legal Clinic’s demand for a coroner’s inquest into Loku’s death.
This demand sounds prima facie reasonable, except that the specification that the coroner be specifically the “African Canadian Legal Clinic” should, to any rational and realistic person, smack of a conflict of interest—or, at the very least, pose doubt about the impartiality of such a coroner (who probably is in some manner simpatico with the sentiments, if not the overt demands, of BLMTO). All such a coroner would need to do to create discord and sow serious doubt about the findings of the SIU decision would be to offer a conclusion that was at loggerheads with the official SIU one.
Demand number 5: Overhaul of the Special Investigations Unit in consultation with families of victims of police violence, black community and community at large.
This demand sounds similarly reasonable, prima facie, but is troubling nonetheless. It’s quite reasonable to wonder if such an “overhaul” would result in measures that would tend to view officers with greater suspicion—by default, as it were—than would otherwise be warranted by the details of specific cases. We should balk at the demand of BLMTO to influence the SIU the same way we would balk at any other interest group making a similar demand. A much more sensible request would be for a comprehensive review of the SIU—something that should probably be performed occasionally, anyway. A comprehensive review of the SIU, with a view to ensuring that its investigative procedures are just and as free from bias as humanly possible, is the best we can really ask for. Allowing interest groups to influence reviews of the SIU and other departments runs the risk of installing artificially-imposed ‘quotas’ and biased procedures. For instance, would it really be just to ensure that only a certain number of lethal police shooting cases involving non-whites resulted in the officer not being charged? In other words, should it be legislated that a certain proportion of officers who have shot and killed non-whites be charged, no matter the details of individual cases? This would, of course, be a ludicrous affront to justice. But with BLMTO, you never know.
The very idea that an overrepresentation of blacks among those killed by police does not necessarily entail that SIU investigations are biased is, for BLMTO and their supporters, unthinkable and ‘racist’. In reality, this is an elementary point that should be straightforward, but for many it is considered controversial if not scandalous.
Interestingly, one of the co-founders of BLMTO, Yusra Khogali, wrongly referred to the SIU as “Toronto police’s Special Investigations Unit” (my emphasis). As I already noted at the outset—and as the SIU’s own website makes eminently clear—“The SIU is a civilian law enforcement agency, independent of the police, that conducts criminal investigations into circumstances involving police and civilians that have resulted in serious injury, death or allegations of sexual assault” (emphasis mine). Indeed, the SIU was created in the wake of past protests alleging (correctly) that internal police investigations might be biased in favor of cops. And since we’re talking about Yusra Khogali, it is indicative of the times we live in when a leader of BLMTO is able to say some rather rotten and bizzare things yet have it discredit neither her nor the organization. Had, say, a white male said such things, mutatis mutandis, it is fairly safe to say that it would have come with high personal and professional costs to said white male, and the movement of which they were a part might never have recovered—and it’s hard to see how Toronto city council, the mayor, the premier, and others in government and the media would have continued to take them seriously, much less agree to meet with them. But, hey, double standards are perfectly fine if you’re a member of the right ‘victim group’, as per the narrative.
Demand number 6: Commitment to eliminating carding, including deleting all previously recorded data, reframed regulations, consistent implementation of policy among various police boards, and concrete disciplinary measures for officers who continue to card.
This, in my view, is the one reasonable demand that BLMTO has made. I will consider this further later in this piece. And it should be pointed out that there are some other legitimate grievances that can be pressed against the Toronto Police. But even here, careful attention to the data counsels against embellishing the scale of the problems. For instance, a recent analysis of Toronto Police data by the Toronto Star in 2010 revealed some racial disparities when it comes to simple drug possession and bail rates, in that “blacks were released at scene (Form 9) 58.3 % of the time; whites 64.5 %. As for bail, blacks [were] held 14.3% of the time; whites 10.2. In other words, whites were 1.1 times more likely to be released at the scene, and blacks 1.5 times more likely to be held for bail”. Importantly, however, one should note that this gap has narrowed since the Toronto Star’s last analysis, performed back in 2002, and the gap, both now and then, is very modest, as the numbers above show.
But let’s now look closely at the data on fatal shootings involving police, so as to put the BLMTO narrative under scrutiny—which the mainstream media has by and large failed to do.
Since 1990, there have been 51 fatal shootings involving police (excluding suicides where police were present). At least 18 of these shootings have involved black men, which amounts to 35% of all fatal shootings involving police since 1990. And since Toronto’s black population is approximately 9%, this means that blacks are overrepresented in fatal shootings involving police as a proportion of their population. Additionally, in 17 of the 51 fatal shootings, The Toronto Star was unable to identify with certainty the racial background of the individual killed. So, it is possible that the number of fatal shootings of blacks involving police is higher than 18.
As reported by The Toronto Star, an independent review of SIU data showed that, of fatal shootings involving police in the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area between 2000 and 2006, “eight of 12 shootings during that time involved black people — representing 66 per cent of Toronto police shootings during that time period, though black residents represented only 6.7 per cent of the population”.
Now, it is crucially important to underscore that a raw statistical measure of a given outcome, in and of itself, cannot tell us anything about whether that given outcome is unjust, or caused by ‘racism’, etc. There are multiple possible causal explanations for any given measured outcome, and no possible explanation should be treated as a default explanation. Hypotheses need to be tested properly and evaluated comparatively (and not all possible hypotheses of a focal phenomenon will be mutually exclusive—e.g., sometimes one hypothesis will explain a part of the variance, while others will explain the rest). Indeed, the same analyst who conducted the independent review of the SIU just mentioned noted that, according to the data (between 2000 and 2006), police departments in Ontario use force infrequently, and they use it much less than the average American police department. As the president of the Toronto Police Association, Mike McCormack, correctly noted, racial data with respect to fatal police shootings should ultimately be viewed in the context of the circumstances in which such shootings occur, including the percentage of fatal shootings that occur in response to emergency calls, and particularly whether the individual shot was wielding a weapon, and, if so, the manner in which it was wielded.
More fundamentally, the human mind did not evolve to deal particularly well with the kind of number crunching that is required to make rational and objective sense of such social phenomena. Well-documented cognitive biases in psychology attest to this. Of most relevance for our purposes is the availability heuristic, as well as the closely-related phenomenon of availability cascades (discovery of the availability heuristic won Danny Kahneman a Nobel Prize (awarded after the death of his colleague, Amos Tversky)). Stated simply, the availability heuristic is the cognitive bias that makes things that are more memorable and easily retrievable from memory appear much more frequent and important than they really are. For example, as Wikipedia puts it:
“when asked to rate the probability of a variety of causes of death, people tend to rate ‘newsworthy’ events as more likely because they can more readily recall an example from memory. Moreover, unusual and vivid events like homicides, shark attacks, or lightning are more often reported in mass media than common and un-sensational causes of death like common diseases”.
The related phenomenon of availability cascades occurs when, for instance, mainstream media are led to increasingly report on sensationalized cases. Availability cascades are fueled via positive feedback: an initial news report of some event—or set of events—sparks a catalytic reaction of further reporting on that event and events like it, which in turn shapes how common the wider populace perceives the event type to be. In their lengthy discussion of availability cascades, Cass Sunstein and Timur Kuran explain how such cascades can have a distorting and chilling effect on public discourse. Because mainstream media-fueled availability cascades can potentially change the beliefs of many individuals, they can thereby change the costs associated with expressing contrary beliefs. For instance, someone with a belief at variance with the dominant narrative created by an availability cascade might opt to keep silent, on pain of suffering personal and professional costs for airing their disagreement (or even doubt). In addition, ‘entrepreneurs’ of availability cascades (i.e., activists) can self-servingly harness the power of cascades if they can manage to convince journalists and politicians to speak and write about events connected with the agendas that said availability entrepreneurs are trying to further.
BLMTO’s agitation can be viewed as having successfully initiated an availability cascade, given the sustained media coverage of the Andrew Loku case. Coupled with the media frenzy surrounding the shooting of Sammy Yatim, it is quite possible that such availability cascades have led to an increase in anti-cop sentiments among citizens of Toronto (and the wider region) (see, for instance, the relevant poll below). And, incidentally, such availability cascades might have further caused those with differing perspectives to feel less inclined to air them, lest they run the risk of being publicly accused as ‘insensitive’, ‘racist’, and so forth. So these cascades, in changing the broad cost-benefit dynamics of opinion broadcast, could very well have had a negative impact on public discourse—namely, by tamping down on critical and informed discussion of the relevant issues, allowing one dominant perspective to go largely unchallenged and unexamined. Just as importantly, if not more so, in changing public discourse, availability cascades can lead politicians to further (or at least pay lip service to) some agenda—even, crucially, when they have private doubts or disagreements with that agenda.
Placed in a larger context, and in view of the availability bias, it is striking how distorted perceptions can be. BLMTO, via the mainstream media, has managed to convince many—including themselves—that an epidemic of illegal police shootings of black men is self-evident, when, using the aforementioned conservative estimate, only 18 black men in Toronto have been killed by police in the last quarter century. Moreover, keep in mind that, without looking at the details of each case, it is unknown how many of those killings were justified or unjustified. Granted, (and this should go without saying) any loss of life is tragic—but looking directly at the numbers gives perspective, keeps our emotions in check, and allows for a detached, objective appraisal of magnitude. Furthermore, why do BLM, and its Canadian offshoot, BLMTO, avoid highlighting and discussing black-on-black homicide, which kills many more blacks? To put this relatively miniscule number of fatalities in perspective, consider, for example, that among men in Toronto, 198 perished from falls in 2010 alone. In other words, almost four times as many men in Toronto died from fatal falls in a single year (2010) than did people die from gun-related incidents involving police in Toronto in the last quarter century.
It should also be noted that although a number of individuals on the political left in Toronto and the province of Ontario have been calling for the collection of racial data in the realm of policing and crime, calls from those on the left were ironically the impetus for eliminating their collection in the first place. (Perhaps many on the left these days are unaware of how such data shakes out by race. Anyone familiar with racial crime data knows that such data is neither politically correct nor particularly flattering for blacks.)
Because of the power of the mainstream media to distort our thinking regarding the prevalence and interpretation of various phenomena, it has the capacity to give rise to attitudes and policies that ultimately cause more harm than good. As Cass Sunstein and Timur Kuran point out, and in the context of human cognitive biases:
“In cases where the costs are not as clear, the content of media coverage may have major consequences for people’s understanding, by determining the relative availability of both the relevant data and their interpretation. Insofar as the availability heuristic shapes people’s interpretations and desired policy responses, the media may lead people to exaggerate the dangers of the situation at hand, convince them that its elimination should receive priority, and make them discount the inconveniences that would accompany an elimination attempt.”
(On the other hand, it’s also worth mentioning that Sunstein and Kuran also state that “the opposite effects are possible too; through neglect the media may breed ignorance about a genuine danger, thus dampening the demand for action”.)
Has the mainstream media in Toronto shaped the public’s perception of both police and Black Lives Matter Toronto, and, if so, to what extent? This is tough to say with any certainty, as per usual, but a recent poll is at least consistent with the hypothesis that the mainstream media in the city has influenced people’s views on the relevant issues. 55% of residents polled support the BLMTO movement, and 50% believe that there is ‘systemic racism’ in the city (and it appears that the term was not defined when residents were polled, so they were free to associate it with anything at all). Given what we know about cognitive biases, it is certainly not farfetched to think that many Torontonians have very distorted views of the circumstances surrounding Andrew Loku’s death and the details of the SIU investigation (as well as other high-profile cases involving police shootings in the U.S.). Rather than carefully analyze the official report issued by the SIU, much of the media coverage has been presented in a truncated or misleading way, and many commentators have filtered the case through the BLMTO narrative. Add to this other cognitive heuristics that generally make humans cognitive misers—what with mental shortcuts in thought and knee-jerk, emotionally-laden reactions—the recent outrage over the shooting death of Sammy Yatim at the hands of another officer, and you have a toxic brew that gives rise to anti-cop sentiment across the city and larger metro area. In the case of the Sammy Yatim shooting, it is interesting to note how a single, tragic case involving but one unhinged officer can for many people taint the entire police force. What is also interesting, in this regard, is how many will take isolated cases such as this and use it to generalize all cops—an instance of essentializing, which, although a natural human inclination stitched into our mind by natural selection, is nonetheless seen as immoral when the target is other human demographic groups (especially non-whites), but which is hypocritically much more acceptable when the target is groups such as the police. (Parenthetically, note how the amplification of the Sammy Yatim shooting by the media emboldened the more militant activist cells in Toronto.) And as Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash rightly notes, the media does not report on the countless incidents where police have patiently and peacefully dealt with potentially violent individuals, prevented crime, protected the public, or otherwise had cordial interactions with citizens. That is to say, we, the public, do not see all of the good that the police bring.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the desire by many to eliminate police carding may be an instance of good intentions possibly leading to bad outcomes. Again, it is not farfetched to think that the media, in amplifying and in some cases even sensationalizing the narrative of BLMTO, has distorted the thinking on this issue among a large segment of the city populace—or, at the very least, has limited the range of public discourse on this issue by making certain opinions anathema and beyond the pale. For although the city of Toronto, Toronto Police, and its citizens may decide that carding infringes on the rights of its denizens, it is possible that eliminating carding entirely or reducing its occurrence substantially would come at the cost of elevated crime levels. I suggest this not to argue that such a proposition is necessarily true, or that carding is even ethical or lawful, but rather to highlight that this is an empirical question. Suppose, for argument’s sake, that a sufficient level of rigorous investigation into this matter resulted in an awareness (that is, strong evidence) that the elimination of carding, or even just its significant reduction, did, in fact, lead to an increase in crime. Suppose, further, that this increase in crime was especially felt in areas of Toronto with high numbers of blacks. The city, and particularly its black citizens, might then be put in the highly unfortunate situation of having to decide which of two bad arrangements they would prefer:
1) a high amount of carding which ruefully disproportionately affects demographic groups such as blacks (and those categorized by police as ‘brown’), but which reduces crime levels across the city, and especially in areas with high black and non-white populations; or 2) no carding (or a substantial decrease of carding) and a higher crime rate across the city, and particularly in neighborhoods with high black and non-black populations.
Again, I float this scenario as an empirical possibility. It is also possible that carding, done to some unspecified extent, does reduce crime, but whereby the effect is generated not by carding per se, but rather by, say, instilling in would-be criminals a kind of deep, intuitive, gut feeling of being surveilled by police (which could also exert subconscious effects on would-be criminals)—a kind of ‘omnipresent watchful eye’, a la Big Brother or the Panopticon. This alternative hypothesis is far from being outlandish, because we now know, thanks to work in the psychology of religion, that priming individuals with being ‘watched’ by others or by ‘God’, or even just the presence of a smiley face placard, can affect their thoughts, emotions, and behavior, and in a variety of contexts. One finding of this body of scientific research is that such priming increases pro-social behavior (and accordingly decreases cheating, free-riding, and so on).
So, if it should turn out that carding (done to some unspecified extent) reduces crime, and if, further, the effect could be similarly achieved merely through instilling a sense of being surveilled, police might be able to place manned cruisers in areas known for elevated crime rates, and for extended periods of time (perhaps more or less permanently, with cruisers and officers rotating on a shift basis). Alternatively—or in addition to cruisers—police might instill the sense of being watched by installing permanent video cameras in a variety of crucial areas throughout the city. Of course, such strategies also have ethical dimensions, even if they could help combat crime. But in the messy, complex real world, tough decisions and trade-offs are often necessary. And in case one has qualms about this idea, they should ask whether police should pay equal attention to men and women, even though we know that when it comes to violent crime, for instance, men are much more likely to be perpetrators than women.
In fact, there is evidence that proactive policing, such as carding and ‘stop-and-frisk’, are effective in reducing crime. For instance, Weisburd, Wooditch, Weisburd, and Yang’s analysis of stop, question, and frisk practices in New York City found that the practices are a modest deterrent of crime. And as Heather Mac Donald notes, such evidence is in line with longer-term trends:
“[The] reactive style of policing dominated law enforcement until the early 1990s, when the New York Police Department embraced data-driven, proactive policing. The NYPD’s revolutionary new philosophy held that the police could prevent felony crime by reducing low-level lawlessness and intervening in suspicious conduct; that philosophy spread nationwide and ushered in a record-breaking 20-year national crime drop, now at risk in urban areas.”
The BLMTO protests and media sensationalism can also very well lead to more crime. Indeed, this already appears to be the case in the United States, with the backlash against police having led to under-policing, which in turn has led to increased crime. This phenomenon has even been dubbed the ‘Ferguson Effect’, and the latest analysis of the data shows that it is likely to be real. As the ever-sharp and brave Heather Mac Donald has pointed out, the Ferguson Effect is strongest precisely in those cities it would predict as being the most at-risk, namely those “with high black populations, low white populations, and high preexisting rates of violent crime”.
In Chicago, for instance, gun violence has shot up and the arrest rate has dropped since the video release of the Laquan McDonald shooting.
Officers in Chicago and elsewhere, it now appears, are scaling back on their police activity, for fear of being the next cop getting national media attention. It’s even been alleged that the NYPD has intentionally pulled back on their policing activity due to being vilified by (leftist) Mayor Bill de Blasio. In Toronto, categories of crime such as shootings and homicides are up compared to this time the previous year. So it is quite possible that similar dynamics have begun to affect the Toronto Police, if not via top-down influences within the force, then at a more psychological level, with officers, similar to their American counterparts, not wanting to be the next cop getting (quite unwanted) mainstream media attention.
It is probably too much to hope for widespread, clear-eyed, fact-based analysis of the ‘concerns’ of Black Lives Matter and its Toronto offshoot—although brave journalists like Heather Mac Donald have done so valiantly. I close out with a couple of videos that underscore the bankruptcy of the Black Lives Matter movement—trenchant criticisms from Ben Shapiro and Larry Elder that, by my lights, are devastating.