Inquest into Andrew Loku shooting may delve into thorny issues of race and mental illness
|Toronto Star 04 Jun 2017 at 19:24|
Now, nearly two years after Andrew Loku was shot by a Toronto police officer, his family, friends and a coalition of rights groups hope a coroner’s inquest will, at last, fill in the missing gaps about Loku’s final moments.
“We had a lot of questions, and we didn’t have any answers about what happened that night,” Kiden Jonathan, a close friend of Loku’s who had been with him hours before he died, said this week.
The long-awaited coroner’s inquest into Loku’s death begins Monday to probe the controversial July 2015 shooting, which occurred in the hallway of an apartment building near Eglinton Ave. W. and Caledonia Rd. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) leased units inside the building, providing housing for people with mental health challenges.
Coroner’s inquests are not held to assign blame, but to probe the circumstances surrounding a death and generate recommendations to prevent future fatalities. Loku’s inquest is expected to last three weeks and hear from 20 witnesses.
A handful of organizations have asked to participate as parties in the inquest, including the CMHA, the Black Action Defence Committee, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Empowerment Council, and Across Boundaries, an organization that provides support and services to racialized communities experiencing mental health problems.
Dr. John Carlisle, the coroner presiding over Loku’s inquest, will make a ruling on which parties will get standing on Monday.
Loku, a 45-year-old father of five from South Sudan, was shot twice after police were summoned by a 911 call from a neighbour saying Loku was armed with a hammer and threatening to kill the caller’s friend.
Ontario’s civilian police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), later cleared the unnamed officer who shot Loku, concluding no criminal charge would be laid because the officer believed he needed to stop an imminent, life-threatening hammer attack.
That conclusion ran counter to an eye witness account that Loku did not pose a threat to anyone at the time of his death.
“Andrew died right in front of me. There was no reason for it,” Loku’s neighbour, Robin Hicks, told the Star shortly after the shooting .
The SIU’s decision prompted outrage about police oversight in Ontario, including complaints about a lack of transparency around its decision-making and questions about the extent to which officers were being held accountable.
Protests against the SIU’s decision — namely a 15-day protest by Black Lives Matter Toronto outside police headquarters — helped prompt a wide-ranging review of police oversight by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch, includingabout SIU decisions.
Rights groups and those who knew Loku believe there is still more to be learned — and changed — from Loku’s life and death. Here are some major issues to be addressed during the inquest.
Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old father of five from South Sudan, was shot twice after police were summoned by a 911 caller saying Loku was armed with a hammer and threatening to kill someone.
As in any circumstance where someone dies in unexpected circumstances, Loku’s relatives are looking for a detailed account of what transpired , said Jonathan Shime, the Toronto lawyer representing Loku’s family.
“We are hoping that the inquest will reveal to us what happened that led to Andrew’s passing and why things proceeded in the fashion that they did,” he said.
Despite last year’s unprecedentedinto Loku’s death, the document was heavily redacted and there remain outstanding questions regarding police actions.
That includes to what extent the officers attempted de-escalation techniques that police are trained to use in tense interactions with someone in a mental health crisis, including offering help or asking what is wrong.
Some of these answers will come from the officers themselves, in turn answering another outstanding question: who shot Loku? The identity of the officer has never been disclosed by Toronto police or the SIU, nor has the name of female officer who witnessed the shooting.
Also expected to be addressed is to what extent the officers were aware that Loku’s address was connected to the CMHA, indicating that some residents have mental health challenges.
Questions around surveillance video from the shooting are also expected to be raised. The video cameras were not functioning that night, and cut out in the key moment before Loku is shot.
Immediately after the shooting, a Toronto police officer attempted to review and download the video , behaviour the SIU called “improper” and that Toronto police maintain was part of the cop’s duty to secure the scene.
The SIU obtained “definitive confirmation” that no footage was deleted or altered afterward, but said it nonetheless threatened public confidence in the credibility of the watchdog’s investigation.
Race and mental illness
Late last year, a coalition of rights groups wrote a letter to Carlisle, the coroner, imploring him to broaden the scope of the inquest to examine the role race and mental illness may have played in the officer’s decision to shoot Loku.
Typically, coroner’s inquests probe the specific circumstances of one death, and are not intended to be a means to examine broad societal issues.
However, the groups argue the inquest cannot serve its public purpose to prevent future deaths if “Mr. Loku’s race, immigration and mental health status are kept out of the inquest process,” reads the November 2016 submission written by Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Law Union of Ontario, Ryerson University’s criminology department and more.
The groups that have requested standing in the inquest are indeed doing so to raise larger questions about race and mental health that otherwise may not be examined.
If Across Boundaries is granted status at the inquest, the organization’s lawyer Howard Morton said he hopes to examine issues of intersectionality — namely why Black men who are suffering from mental health challenges are too often involved in fatal encounters with police.
A coroner’s inquest includes a jury of five community members who are enabled to ask questions throughout the process and, if they choose, craft recommendations to prevent future deaths.
As with many previous coroner’s inquests involving a fatal police interaction, Loku’s inquest is likely to closely examine police use of force when encountering a person in a mental health crisis.
Previous inquests, as well as reports on police use of force, have made duplicate or similar recommendations around increased de-escalation training for officers. Following a recent use-of-force report after the fatal police shooting of Sammy Yatim, for instance, Toronto police increased training for both recruits and officers, focusing on responding to emotionally disturbed persons and the destigmatization of mental illness.
Breese Davies, lawyer for the CMHA, said the focus now needs to shift to ensuring training translates into action.
If the CMHA is granted status at the Loku inquest, she wants to emphasize the importance of ensuring de-escalation becomes instinctual for officers when they go out into the field.
“It’s a complicated thing to, as police, to go into stressful situations and to make de-escalation their primary and initial and instinctive response,” she said.
“It needs to be, if the police force is ever going to get to their goal of zero deaths .”