As is true of police killings of civilians in the United States, Canadian police disproportionately kill people experiencing mental health issues (police in Canada also disproportionately kill Black and Indigenous people). Too often, police insisting on a “comply or die” framework for encountering civilians quickly act with lethal force against people unwilling or unable to accept orders from officers.
On Friday night, September 30, 2016, police in Hamilton, Ontario shot and killed Anthony (Tony) Divers (36) a man who is reported to have been dealing with mental health issues. According to witnesses the victim had no weapon and posed no threat to police. He was apparently walking away from the Hamilton officers rather than toward them when they killed him.
The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which examines all cases of police harm to civilians in Ontario is investigating the killing. They have assigned seven investigators and three forensic investigators to review the killing.
The Police Killing of Tony Divers
Tony Divers was killed around 30 minutes after a 911 call was made about someone possibly hitting a woman. Someone may have reported seeing a gun but neither the police nor the SIU have revealed where that rumor originated and they have not confirmed the presence of any gun on or near the man they killed. A witnesses to the police killing of Tony Divers reports that he did not see the man carrying any gun.
One witness, Joe Towers recalls hering some noise behind him and someone shout “Fucking goof” (quoted in Bennett 2016). Looking further he noted a police officer following a civilian. What at first seemed like a routine arrest situation quickly turned when Towers heard the officer scream: “Get your fucking hands up” (quoted in Bennett 2016b). According to Towers, at this point he noticed that the officer had a gun drawn on the man (Bennett 2016b). Fearing being shot himself by police, Towers attempted to hide behind a trash dumpster when he heard the first shot fired by the cops. In his words: “It was sort of in mid-turn where I heard the first shot go off, and I was turning back, and I saw the second shot just hit the guy and the guy fell on the ground” (quoted in Bennett 2016b). Several police then moved in to arrest the stricken man.
There remain some inconsistencies in the initial police reports. Divers was fatally shot less than 30 minutes after an assault took place that he was believed to have been involved in several blocks away. Police claim that the initial call for the assault came in around 11 PM, but time-stamped security footage from a condominium complex across the street places the initial encounter with the woman occurring at 11:34 PM. The killing of Tony Divers occurred close to midnight. Curiously the man in video footage, not confirmed to be Divers was wearing a “security” shirt.
Mental Health, Policing, and the Killing of Tony Divers
A Hamilton defense lawyer who has represented Tony Divers since 2011 says that the young man had been struggling with mental health issues in the period before he was killed by police. She suggests he might have been seeking help the night he was killed. According to lawyer Jaime Stephenson: “Recently he’s been dealing with some mental health issues. He’d been intermittently seeking treatment for that” (quoted in Bennett 2016b). She notes that the location at which Divers was killed by police might give “an indication of where he was headed” at the time, possibly to the psychiatric emergency room at Hamilton’s St. Joseph’s Healthcare (quoted in Bennett 2016b). In her view: “He was awfully close to St. Joe’s. I wasn’t there, obviously. But my suspicion is that he may have been seeking treatment” (quoted in Bennett 2016b). While Stephenson did not know of any specific diagnosis for Divers she was aware that he was receiving “some treatment” for a mental health issue (quoted in Bennett 2016b).
A friend, who would identify himself only as Daniel, remembered Tony Divers as “a very loving and caring brother and friend and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to help those he cared about” (quoted in Frketich and Moro 2016). The mourning friend expressed the sense of loss:
“He is going to be sadly and deeply missed by many whose lives he brightened and affected. I’m personally so deeply heartbroken and lost over this. He was always there for me and carried me through some of my hardest times. Times I’d not have made it through without his love, support, and guidance.” (quoted in Frketich and Moro 2016)
These are the people killed by police who are trained to see not human beings but only threats. And to see them everywhere, in everyone. And often that “threat” can be as little as refusing to follow orders shouted in anger.
Comply or Die
According to witness Joe Towers, Tony Divers was actually walking away from police when they shot him. This raises again the question of “comply or die policing” and the killing of a civilian not because they pose a threat but simply because they have ignored or questioned an officer’s authority.
Based on what he saw he did not believe Divers was armed. According to Towers: “I didn’t see him waving any gun around” (quoted in Bennett 2016b). This case appears to have been another case of “comply or die policing,” an all too common occurrence in the Canadian context, based on the witness report. Notably, while suggesting that Divers was not necessarily cooperative, he did not appear to pose a real threat. In Towers’ view: “He didn’t look very afraid of the cop; he wasn’t being cooperative, but he didn’t look like he was any particular threat. It just didn’t seem like he wanted to be arrested” (quoted in Bennett 2016b). And this is a reasonable enough position for any citizen to take. It should not cost one one’s life. Under conditions of comply or die policing simply not wanting to be arrested, or questioning why one is being engaged by police can be an executable offense.
Witness Joe Towers recalls the officer being close to the victim, in his estimation “a few feet, not very far at all” (quoted in Bennett 2016b). In Towers’ view there was no need to use deadly force and given how close the officer was to the victim he believes a taser could have been deployed instead. Hamilton police are among the first police agencies in the province to arm all front line officers with tasers following a 2013 decision by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to ease restrictions on who can use them (Bennett 2016b).
Towers was understandably upset by witnessing the police killing of Divers and he questioned why police came at the man with guns drawn at all. Towers stated afterwards: “My only concern was why the gun was drawn on him in the first place. Perhaps [the cop] was told that he had a gun by somebody else, but I don’t know” (quoted in Bennett 2016b). The question has been raised by others concerned about the police killing of Divers. Lawyer Jaime Stephenson questions the police response in this case. In her words: “I query why deadly force was used. Even if there was some report on a 9-1-1 call that there was a weapon, if you’re there and you don’t see a weapon …” (quoted in Bennett 2016b).
Another witness, taxi driver Khalid Yousaf, told the Hamilton Spectator Friday night following the shooting that he saw a man, presumably Tony Driver, walking on James Street South and then heard a police officer tell the man to stop walking (Bennett 2016a). Yousaf reported that while the man kept walking the officer followed him again asking him to stop walking. Rather shockingly Yousaf revealed that “the man turned to face the officer and stretched out his arms at his side and palms facing the officer” (quoted in Bennett 2016a). So by his eyewitness account the man killed by police posed no threat and indeed showed the police his open palms, holding nothing. Then, for this, he was shot twice and killed. According to Khalid Yousaf: “Then, he fired” (quoted in Bennett 2016a). Yousaf never reported seeing the victim with a gun at any point.
In reflecting upon the history of police killings of civilians dealing with mental health issues, Stephenson suggests: “It doesn’t seem like the police are learning from the past mistakes that have happened” (quoted in Bennett 2016b). Sadly police killings in Canada suggest these cases will continue to occur as police insist on pursuing comply or die policing approaches. This is underlined by the fact that because police are never held truly accountable for killing civilians there is no reason for them to change their approach and behavior. And there remains no mechanism for holding them fully accountable.
Bennett, Kelly. 2016a. “3 Days after Tony Divers was Shot by Police, Key Questions Remain.” CBC News. October 4. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/3-days-after-tony-divers-was-shot-by-police-key-questions-remain-1.3789582
Bennett, Kelly. 2016b. “Lawyer Says Tony Divers, Man Shot by Police, Had Mental Illness.” CBC News. October 5. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/lawyer-says-tony-divers-man-shot-by-police-had-mental-illness-1.3793369
Frketich, Joanna and Teviah Moro. 2016. “Anthony Divers Identified as Man Killed by Hamilton Police in Friday Night Shooting.” Hamilton Spectator. October 3. http://www.thespec.com/news-story/6889448-anthony-divers-identified-as-man-killed-by-hamilton-police-in-friday-night-shooting/