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Peel police had more than enough time to de-escalate before Ejaz Choudry, 62, was shot and killed, experts say

·4 min read

Peel police had more than enough time to formulate a de-escalation plan to safely apprehend a 62-year-old mentally ill Malton man before tactical officers stormed his apartment then shot and killed him, a former director of Ontario’s police watchdog says. Howard Morton, who led the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in the 1990s, said Peel police overreacted by deploying the force’s highly-trained tactical unit to apprehend Ejaz Choudry on June 20, 2020, rather than wait for someone trained in de-escalating a mental health crisis. According to the SIU decision released earlier this week, officers did request a crisis negotiator before entering Choudry’s apartment about three hours after his daughter initially made a non-emergency call for a wellness check on her father — but one was not available. “To simply say no other crisis negotiator was available because they were on another call is a serious defect that has to be remedied,” Morton said, added he “couldn’t believe” what he saw in video showing three tactical officers attempting to enter Choudry’s apartment from his second-floor balcony moments before he was shot. “They went crashing in there, on a guy with a knife suffering from schizophrenia, all alone in an apartment with the front doors blockaded by officers,” Morton said. “If they’re trained that way still that’s a real serious flaw in police training.” Earlier this week, the SIU cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing in Choudry’s shooting death, which sparked outrage and protests last summer. According to the SIU report, Choudry was killed as he moved toward three tactical unit officers while holding a “large kitchen knife.” The officers — who had climbed up to Choudry’s balcony with a ladder — first attempted to stop him with a Taser and rubber bullets before one officer fatally shot him with a pistol, the report said. In his decision, SIU director Joseph Martino wrote that because he was “not reasonably satisfied” that the shooting “amounted to legally unjustified force or was the culmination of a criminally negligent course of conduct, there is no basis to proceed with criminal charges in this case notwithstanding Mr. Choudry’s tragic death.” The officer who shot Choudry did not consent to be interviewed or provide his notes, as is the legal right of all officers facing an SIU investigation. Morton said he agreed with the director’s assessment of the officers’ use of force, but said he was surprised Martino did not consider the Criminal Code charge of failure to provide the necessaries of life. Before the officers breached the balcony door, Choudry had been essentially detained in his own home, meaning the officers had a legal duty to provide him with a standard of care, Morton said. “The standard of care is triggered once there is detention,” he said. Morton added that the officers could have simply left Choudry alone unless they reasonably thought he would harm himself — an idea he said did not seem to be supported in the SIU account. According to the SIU report, Choudry told police he would not come out because he thought the police would shoot him. He also repeatedly asked to be left alone, and at one point told the officers they should get a warrant before attempting to enter the unit — facts that go against the notion that he posed any immediate threat. In a statement following the SIU finding, Peel police Chief Nishan Duraiappah again said police should not have the primary responsibility to respond to persons in crisis. “More has to be done to support those in crisis, and police should not be the primary responders called upon to manage mental health calls,” he said. University of Toronto criminologist Julius Haag said Choudry’s case represents the very serious harms that can arise from having police as primary responders. Like Morton, Haag also expressed concern about the lack of an available negotiator and “the fatal decision” to send in the tactical unit. “Undoubtedly there were opportunities to save Mr. Choudry’s life,” he said. “For me, thinking of how tactical response unit officers are armed and attired, I can only imagine how terrified Mr. Choudry must have been.” Former Waterloo Region Police Chief Matthew Torigian said that even though the SIU did not lay criminal charges, Duraiappah should conduct an internal investigation to reassure the public police are searching for “lessons to be learned as far a approaches to these types of situations.” Torigian, who also served as deputy Solicitor General for Ontario, said Choudry’s case amplifies a conundrum all police services are grappling with: “when are the police the most appropriate first-responders to situations like this?” As it stands, in most instances, as soon as a weapon is mentioned to a 9-1-1 dispatcher a particular type of police response gets triggered, he said. (According to the SIU report, Choudry’s daughter mentioned a pocket-knife in her initial call for non-emergency medical assistance.) “We have to look at all of the cases that we’ve seen in the past to see if there is a common thread here,” Torigian said. As for a solution, “we’re moving closer to it, but I think we’re moving too slowly.”

Jason Miller, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star