Toronto police officers are believed to be the only witnesses to the events that immediately led up to the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, but because no cops currently utilize body-worn cameras, the public may not get an independent account of what happened.
"This is a textbook case as to why I have been advocating for body-worn cameras and I am now fast-tracking, to the best of my ability, to allow that process to speed up so we can have access to body-worn cameras as soon as possible," Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders told reporters on Friday.
Korchinski-Paquet fell 24 storeys from a High Park highrise last Wednesday during an encounter with police. Her family said police were alone with her in her apartment just before she died, and that she cried out, “Mom, help” before going silent. Protesters took to the streets on Saturday in part to demand answers for the 29-year-old woman’s death.
Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), an arms-length agency that investigates fatal police incidents, said that it is too soon to “confirm or deny” allegations that Toronto police played a role in the death of Korchinski-Paquet.
Body-worn cameras could have given an unbiased account into what happened in the leadup to Korchinski-Paquet’s death. However, despite being recommended six years ago, Toronto police have yet to implement body-worn cameras.
“What I’m hoping for is that we have the ability of having body-worn cameras rolled out [in the third quarter] of this year,” Saunders said.
Critics have long pointed out that body cameras will not end police brutality, given they can be turned off. Police in Louisville did not have their body cameras activated when they shot and killed a Black barbecue-owner who was known to give free meals to law enforcement on Monday. The Louisville police chief was fired as a result, although he was due to step down at the end of the month.
The idea that Toronto police adopt body-worn cameras for frontline officers was first proposed in 2014 in an independent review of the service’s practices.
Saunders’ comments come after a multi-year examination of body-worn cameras by Toronto police, including a year-long pilot project that concluded in 2016 and recommended the service move forward with the deployment of body-worn cameras
“Overall, support for the body-worn cameras was extremely strong in the community,” reads the pilot project report, with the majority of the community saying they felt the cameras would help make the community safer, make police more accountable, and improve public trust in the police. Surveys conducted by Toronto police showed 95 percent of the public and 85 percent of officers supported the use of the cameras.
However, Toronto police also pushed back on when the cameras should be activated, with cops calling for “more officer discretion in when to turn the cameras on and off," according to the report.
"They're saying: don't worry, there's just a few tweaks. We have a dazzling new technology that will level the playing field, and will be objective and the camera doesn't lie," Toronto activist Desmond Cole told VICE in a 2016 interview. "These things are all nonsense. If the camera doesn't turn on, does it matter if the camera lies or not?"
Knia Singh is a human rights criminal defence lawyer representing the Korchinski-Paquet family.
At a press conference outside 100 High Park Avenue Thursday evening, Singh explained that Korchinski-Paquet was in distress over a family conflict when her mother called 911 seeking police assistance to bring calm to the situation.
Once the six police officers arrived at the scene, Singh said they met Korchinski-Paquet’s mother, Claudette Korchinski-Beals, along with Korchinski-Paquet and her brother, Reece, in the hallway of the building. Korchinski-Beals "pleaded with police to provide assistance to her daughter" by taking her to the Centre of Mental Health and Addiction for mental health support, according to Singh. Family members said Korchinski-Paquet was also experiencing an epileptic seizure.
When Korchinski-Paquet entered the apartment to use the bathroom, Singh said multiple officers followed her into the unit and, when her brother Reece tried to go in and get her, the police stopped him.
After one to two minutes, Singh said Korchinski-Paquet called out “Mom, help! Mom, help! Mom, help!” before everything went silent. A short time later, the family found out Korchinski-Paquet was on the ground, 24 storeys below.
Saunders said Toronto Police received three calls to 911 Wednesday afternoon from three different people. He said the calls indicated there was an assault and weapons present, but Singh told Global News there were no weapons present when officers arrived and there was no dispute at the time. Saunders' remarks come in spite of the fact that he said he was legally unable to publicly comment on the case.
The circumstances of the interaction inside the apartment unit remain unclear as of Monday.
According to Singh: “The family wants answers to what happened. How can a call for assistance turn into a loss of life?"
Singh also said the family is concerned with how people with mental health issues are being mishandled by the police in North America, like when Toronto police shot and killed 26-year-old D’andre Campbell in his Brampton home after a 911 call for a “domestic situation” (the SIU still has not concluded that investigation).
So far the SIU, a civilian agency separate from the police, has interviewed civilians, officers, and secured video footage from the apartment building where Korchinski-Paquet died. However, Singh said he is “disappointed” that the adoption of body-worn cameras wasn’t done sooner.
The city-wide adoption of body-worn cameras was estimated to cost the Toronto police $51 million over five years when the pilot project concluded in 2016. The Toronto police budget is roughly $1-billion a year.
The money could come from redistributing an existing police budget that has increased by more than $200 million in 10 years in spite of allegations that Toronto police are overpaid, overstaffed, underworked, and not particularly good at solving violent crime.
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