A coroner’s jury probing the police shooting death of a Black man in mental distress seven years ago is calling on police forces across Ontario to strengthen training in anti-Black racism, implicit bias and mental health awareness.
The jurors’ 35 recommendations — released last Friday — are also aimed at the Ministry of the Solicitor General, Peel Regional Police and the Peel Housing Corporation. They came out after almost three weeks of testimony in an inquest into the death of Marc Boekwa Diza Ekamba of Mississauga, who was 22 at the time.
You can read all 35 recommendations at the end of this story.
“I am grateful for the work and recommendations of the coroner’s jury but nothing they do can bring Marc back to us,” Chanel Felizor, Ekamba’s sister, said in a statement.
“I just want the police to stop killing Black men.”
19 shots fired
The coroner’s jury was told Peel Regional Police officers shot Ekamba 11 times in his Mississauga public housing unit on March 20, 2015 while responding to a neighbour’s complaint. They opened fire after Ekamba stabbed two of the officers with a kitchen knife, and refused to drop it. There were 19 shots fired in all. A woman who lived next door was also badly injured.
The provincial police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), found there were no grounds for criminal charges against the officers. But advocates say Ekamba and his family had shown signs of mental distress and if they’d gotten the help they needed, police intervention would not have been necessary.
The recommendations come in the wake of several cases in recent years in which people of colour in mental distress have been killed in confrontations with police in the Greater Toronto Area. Last year, the SIU cleared Peel officers of any wrongdoing after they fatally shot Ejaz Choudry, 62, during a wellness check in June of 2020. Police officers were also present in 2020 when Regis Korchinski-Paquet, 29, fell to her death from her high-rise apartment balcony in Toronto.
Peel police officers were also cleared in the 2019 death of Clive Mensah, 30, and the 2020 death of D’Andre Campbell, 26 — both Black men with mental illness.
“Perhaps the jury, like me, like so many others, are tired of having this addressed piecemeal by piecemeal when people die in encounters with particular police services in Ontario,” said Jennifer Chambers, the executive director of Empowerment Council, an advocacy group that participates in inquests involving people in crisis killed by police.
According to the SIU report, on March 20 2015 at 10:00 p.m., Peel officers responded to a complaint at 3070 Queen Frederica Dr. A neighbour had said Ekamba’s mother had called her a “witch,” had threatened her with death and had thrown a knife at her.
The report says the officers tried to arrest Ekamba and his mother, saying they believed they had grounds to do both. Ekamba then responded by attacking police with the knife, the report said. Hs mother struck one of the officers on the head with a metal pot, allowing Ekamba to slip free. He returned knife-in-hand and screamed at the officers to release his mother. Police then drew their firearms and ordered Ekamba to stop. When he didn’t, the report says all three officers fired their weapons.
According to the Toronto Star, officers testified at the inquest that race was not a factor, the victims purported mental state did not affect their approach and they wouldn’t have done anything differently. It was also reported that at the time, one of the officers had “very minimal” training on how to handle mental health-related calls and racialized communities in crisis, and that they used no de-escalation techniques.
The jury’s recommendations also include:
- Commissioning a study on the creation and implementation of a province-wide, civilian-led system to respond to persons in crisis, staffed by mental health and crisis intervention professionals, and persons with “lived experience.”
- Establishing advisory or standing committees on race, impartial policing and mental health for all police services and boards.
- Special recognition in the province’s Use of Force policing framework for the unique challenges Black people who have serious mental health issues face when they interact with police.
Many of the recommendations have been made before, and implemented to some extent, following the police shooting deaths of other Black men in mental distress such as Andrew Loku according to Kinglsey Gilliam, spokesperson for the Black Action Defense Committee.
However, Gilliam says there’s still much more work to be done to shift the onus of mental health response from police to trained professionals. He says the strong wording that directs named parties to “allocate funding and resources” to implement all 35 recommendations could be key to getting there.
“Institutions often want to have the discretion on whether to implement or not implement,” said Gilliam.
“And that is what was being taken out of this.”
Response to recommendations
CBC reached out to Peel Regional Police, the Ministry of the Solicitor General, and Peel Region’s housing department for comment.
In a statement, Peel Housing Corporation manager Andrea Warren says the organization hasn’t formally received the recommendations yet, but is “looking forward to receiving and reviewing” them.
Const. Akhil Mooken, a spokesperson with Peel Regional Police, says while the service supported a number of recommendations, it also tried to ensure that they were all relevant to the inquest, implementable and would “effect positive change.”
“This sometimes involves ensuring the language is clear and the recommendation is drafted in a way that is realistic for us to implement,” said Mooken.
In a written response, Brent Ross, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, says the ministry “will closely examine the recommendations put forward by the jury and determine how best to address them.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.