Investigators probing the fatal police shooting of a man in Toronto Thursday will not only have to factor in the recent mass murder at a school in Texas, but also encounters Canadian police officers have with people carrying pellet guns, a criminologist says.
Encounters with weapons that appear lethal but aren’t “occur with regularity across Canada,” although they are rare, Michael Kempa, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, told CBC News on Friday.
“There’s more or less about two to three incidents a month across the country, which is a small proportion of total police responses, but still a fairly reliable occurrence,” he said.
Toronto police shot and killed a man Thursday after receiving reports of a person with a rifle in an area where several schools are located. Later, investigators recovered a pellet gun at the scene, according to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the provincial police watchdog agency.
“These weapons, BB guns, pellet guns and real guns all look quite similar,” Kempa said. “You can really only tell by looking directly down the barrel in terms of how they’re shaped.”
Kempa says “pellet guns can in fact be quite dangerous,” adding that they “shoot a bullet that looks quite a lot like a regular firearm bullet.”
Additionally, Kempa says there’s always a question of how much projectile force pellet guns have.
“They vary to a great degree. Police officers simply don’t have the opportunity to make that kind of assessment when they’re faced with a weapon that’s perhaps being directed directly at them.”
The SIU, which is called in whenever someone is killed or injured in confrontations with police, says the man who died in Toronto Thursday was 27. The agency says it has assigned four investigators and three forensic investigators to the case.
Investigators won’t say whether the man pointed his weapon at officers or if he spoke of any plan to target a school.
It also remains unclear what happened once police confronted the man.
Texas shooting has police ‘stepping up patrols’
The shooting happened near William G. Davis Public School in Scarborough just two days after a gunman entered a Texas elementary school classroom and killed 19 children and two teachers.
Kempa says police are held to the same standard all the time, but adds officers have a protocol for responding after major incidents like the one in Texas.
“There is a higher risk of copycat incidents, including in Canada, when we have school shootings and other public shootings in the United States,” he said.
“So, for example, following along from the incidents in the United States, Toronto police are going to be stepping up patrols around school areas for a number of days.”
SIU spokesperson Kristy Denette says the shooting occurred in a residential area and investigators have begun gathering witness statements.
“The SIU investigation really is focused on the police discharging weapons at this individual and his subsequent death, so really the SIU focus is the potential criminality involving the police officers involved,” Denette told CBC News on Friday.
Denette says investigators “have quite a bit of footage and witness accounts” but if there is anyone else who may have seen anything, they should contact the agency to provide that information.
The family of Thursday’s shooting victim has been identified, but Denette says the man’s name is not being released because the family has not given consent.
Ronnie Smith, whose two children attend William G. Davis Public School, says there’s a lot of fear because of the Texas school shooting, and people have to trust the police will follow their training.
He says he hopes the police did the right thing on Thursday.
“I’m not here to judge them … You can’t take a chance in that situation, you know, going around with a gun by a school,” he said.
“Maybe sometimes they don’t have time to ask questions … I’m sure they don’t just willy-nilly go around shooting people, but I guess they’d have to answer that. One would hope that they don’t do that.”