OTTAWA – When Const. Grzegorz Pierzchala was shot while responding to a call Tuesday afternoon he became the sixth Canadian police officer to die since September, but an expert is warning the numbers do not represent a trend.
Michael Arntfield, a criminologist and professor at Western University, said the recent deaths are concerning and are an indication of how dangerous policing has become, given the growing responsibilities police are taking on.
“The takeaway is that as police are involved in more situations that would not traditionally be a police officer’s job, they’re going to be subjected to a broader cross-section of risks that historically they’ve not necessarily been trained to deal with,” he said.
A former officer himself, Arntfield said police deaths are still rare in Canada.
Pierzchala, 28, was shot while responding to a vehicle in a ditch just west of Hagersville, Ont., about 45 kilometres southwest of Hamilton. A 25-year-old man and a 30-year-old woman have been charged with first-degree murder.
On Oct. 18, RCMP Const. Shaelyn Yang was fatally stabbed in Burnaby while trying to issue an eviction notice to a man who had been living in a tent at a local park.
Just a week earlier, on Oct. 11, two officers were shot while responding to a disturbance in Innisfil, Ont. South Simcoe police constables Devon Northrup and Morgan Russell both died in hospital.
On Sept. 14, York Regional Police Const. Travis Gillespie was killed in a car crash on his way to work in Markham Ont. Gillespie was off-duty at the time and the other driver in the crash has been charged with impaired driving.
His death was two days after Toronto Police Const. Andrew Hong was shot at a Mississauga Tim Hortons while on his lunch break, in what police have called an ambush.
“Each of these circumstances is demonstrably different, each representing its own incident with learning moments and training potential, and not necessarily a part of a of a consistent pattern,” said Arntfield.
Still, the number of deaths raises a red flag for some police associations.
Mark Baxter, president of the Police Association of Ontario, called the recent deaths heartbreaking, saying that in his 18 years of policing he’s “never seen anything like this.”
He said OPP officers receive extensive training at the Ontario Police College to prepare them for what they may deal with in the field and have lots of oversight.
But when it comes to the recent deaths, he said, “no amount of training could have prepared (them) for what they encountered.”
“It really speaks to some greater societal challenges that we have,” said Baxter, challenges that include access to help for mental health, addiction and homelessness.
“Without proper supports, without people checking on them … all of these have cascading effects,” said Baxter. “We’re seeing a rise in violence across the country.”
“We’re seeing a rise in police officers use-of-force incidents with members of the public.”
According to analysis by The Canadian Press, police shot at 87 people across Canada between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30. Of those shootings, 46 people died.
That’s a nearly 25 per cent increase from 2021, when officers shot at 70 people, killing 37.
Baxter said he plans to work with the Canadian Police Association and all levels of government to figure out how to curb the violence.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 28, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.