Inquest into Killing of Andrew Loku by Toronto Police Begins (June 5, 2017)

Andrew Loku was shot and killed by a Toronto police officer on July 5, 2015. On Monday June 5, 2017 a coroner’s inquest opened into the killing. An autopsy found that Loku had been shot twice in the chest. He died of the gunshot wounds at the scene. The killing raised deeply troubling questions about the rapidity of police use of force, anti-Black racism on the Toronto force, and police mistreatment of people who may need mental health supports. Loku’s killing by the still unnamed officer sparked demonstrations by community members and Black Lives Matter movements.

The 45-year-old father of five, originally from South Sudan where he suffered kidnapping and torture, was confronted by two Toronto officers in the hallway of an apartment building on Gilbert Avenue near Rogers Road and Caledonia Road in the city’s west end. Following the killing there were calls to identify the officers involved and charge them and to release video footage of the interaction and shooting. As one close friend of Andrew Loku, Kiden Jonathan, who had been with his friend hours before he was killed, has said publicly: “We had a lot of questions, and we didn’t have any answers about what happened that night” (quoted in Gillis 2017a).

Calls for an inquest in the killing of Andrew Loku have come from many different sources. These include members of Loku’s family, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the African Canadian Legal Clinic, Alok Mukherjee, former chair of the Toronto Police Service Board, and Black Lives Matter Toronto.

The coroner’s inquest into Loku’s killing will be presided over by coroner Dr. John Carlisle. Several community groups have sought participant status in the inquest. They include the CMHA, the Black Action Defence Committee, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Empowerment Council, and Across Boundaries, a groups provides support and services to racialized communities dealing with mental health issues (Gillis 2017a).

 

No Accountability: A Flawed SIU Investigation

While there should be no illusions about the coroner’s inquest, and its limited scope of action, it is hoped that the inquest will provide some answers to serious questions about Andrew Loku’s killing. These include the identities of the two officers directly involved.

The officer who killed Loku had already been exonerated by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the agency that examines police harm to civilians in Ontario, in March 2016. The SIU declared the shooting “legally justified,” a typical response to police killings of civilians in Canada.

This decision drew outrage from community members, policing critics, and Black Lives Matter organizers. A space in front of Toronto Police Headquarters was occupied following the decision to clear the officer who killed Loku. Black Lives Matter Toronto held the space for 15 days in protest against ongoing racism, lack of transparency, and lack of accountability in both policing and oversight. Community members also held a vigil outside the home of Premier Kathleen Wynne, head of provincial government.

Yet, despite the SIU claim that the officer who killed Loku was worried about a hammer Loku was said to be holding, evidence suggests another story. Steve Lurie, Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Toronto, has called for the inquest based on evidence that contradicts the SIU and police story. In his words: “We have evidence that Andrew was calm at the time of his shooting” (quoted in CBC News 2017).

Two issues call into question the conclusions of the SIU. First is the actual account of an eye witness who has said that Loku did not pose any threat to anyone at the time of his killing. According to Loku’s neighbor, Robin Hicks, who witnessed the police killing: “Andrew died right in front of me. There was no reason for it” (quoted in Gillis 2017a).

Second are the serious questions about surveillance video from the shooting.  According to police and the SIU, the video cameras at the scene were not functioning that night, and, even more curious, cut out right in the crucial moment before Loku is shot by the officer (Gillis 2017a). The video that does exist apparently shows Loku moving very slowly with the hammer down at his side, his behavior in no way threatening.

As troubling is the fact that Immediately after the shooting, a Toronto police officer tried to review and download the video (Gillis 2017a). Incredibly, this is activity that even the SIU called “improper” yet they did not probe this further in their investigation. This is more evidence of the ongoing, and unpunished, practices of police to interfere with, obstruct, and predetermine the SIU investigations. The SIU have themselves long documented and complained about such practices but there are no mechanisms used to make police comply with investigative policies and procedures (legal mechanisms ate available but are, again, rarely if ever used to hold police accountable).

The SIU’s decision renewed ongoing concerns about police oversight in Ontario. The SIU is lauded by government proponents as the “gold standard” of police oversight internationally. Yet SIU investigations have been undermined by obstruction and harassment from police, which are not properly dealt with, and plagued by a repeated lack of transparency regarding decision-making and real questions about the degree to which officers have actually been held accountable (Gillis 2017a). These problem have been documented in detail within this project.

So questionable was the SIU decision in this case that it, along with the community protests, contributed to the initiation of the provincial review of police oversight by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch, which made recommendations around transparency and police compliance. Public concern over the case led to the unprecedented release in 2016 of the SIU director’s report into Loku’s killing. Yet that document was heavily redacted and not particularly insightful.

 

Intersections of State Violence: Police, Racism, and Mental Health

Toward the end of 2016 a coalition of community groups sent a letter to presiding coroner Carlisle requesting that he broaden the scope of the inquest to examine the intersecting roles of race and mental in the officer’s quick decision to view Loku as a threat and to kill him. The November 2016 submission by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Law Union of Ontario, Ryerson University’s criminology department and others notes that the inquest cannot hope to live up to its stated purpose of preventing future deaths if, in their words “Mr. Loku’s race, immigration and mental health status are kept out of the inquest process” (quoted in Gillis 2017a). Unfortunately coroner’s inquests are rather functional, examining specific circumstances of a particular death and do not analyse broader systemic issues of inequality and injustice as are in fact crucial to understanding state violence.

Some groups have requested standing in the inquest in order to raise significant questions about race and mental health that would otherwise be overlooked by such an inquest. Howard Morton, lawyer for the group Across Boundaries, explains that if granted status the group hopes to examine key issues of intersectionality. In particular there is a need to address why Black men who are suffering from mental health issues are so often the victims of fatal encounters with police officers (Gillis 2017a).

In fact, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) leased units inside the building in which Loku was killed. The apartments provide housing for people with mental health challenges. The inquest should, at minimum, address the extent to which police officers were aware that Loku’s address was connected to the CMHA, an indication that some residents deal with mental health challenges (Gillis 2017a).

In the words of Kingsley Gilliam, a spokesperson for the Black Action Defence Committee, outside the courtroom on Monday: “He did not need to die. We need a shift in paradigm, where we shift crisis intervention away from police” (quoted in Gillis 2017b).

 

The Inquest

The inquest, with a jury of five members, is slated to last three weeks and hear from around 20 witnesses. The inquest has no powers and will simply make recommendations to prevent similar deaths. These are typically ignored or selectively implemented, but not necessarily practiced after implementation, by police. There can be no criminal findings and no charges can result. No findings for compensation can be offered. Inquests can lead to the naming of killer cops and are some of the only, very limited, means for doing so in the Canadian context.

Expectations for the inquest should be tempered given its limited scope and powers. There have already been numerous inquests into police violence and the killing of civilians. All that they have really done is to highlight that the police in Canada are brutal and kill a stunningly large number of people. And they kill Black people and people dealing with mental health issues with haste.

The previous inquests have made recommendations around increased de-escalation training and reducing stigmatization for people dealing with mental health issues. Training has not translated into action and, really, serves largely as window dressing for police forces and means of extra pay for officers. And, of course, we can never forget that police are instituted and officers paid to kill.

 

Further Reading

CBC News. 2017. “Inquest into Police Killing of Andrew Loku Begins Today.” CBC News. June 5. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/andrew-loku-coroners-inquest-starts-1.4146023

Gillis, Wendy. 2017a. “Inquest into Andrew Loku Shooting May Delve into Thorny Issues of Race and Mental Illness.” Our Windsor. June 5. https://www.ourwindsor.ca/news-story/7353409-inquest-into-andrew-loku-shooting-may-delve-into-thorny-issues-of-race-and-mental-illness/

Gillis, Wendy. 2017b. “Andrew Loku was Traumatized from Kidnapping, Torture in South Sudan.” Toronto Star. June 5. https://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2017/06/05/andrew-loku-was-excited-happy-in-weeks-before-his-death.html

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