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Legitimizing police violence: sanism, ableism and racism

Tracy Mack

January 6, 2016

A fundamental aspect of Canada’s creation, which also consistently maintains systems of sanist, ableist and racist oppression, is violence. Sanism is discrimination against Mad people and the devaluation of mental difference.

State violence and killings are not chosen acts, they are required in order to maintain the oppressions that white supremacy, able-bodiedness, mind normativity and capitalist exploitation are founded upon. The most prominent form of state sanctioned violence is the policing apparatus.

Excessive force

On the morning of November 1, 2015, Santokh Bola, a racialized man with physical and intellectual disabilities, parked his vehicle behind his family business. As the unarmed 21-year-old exited his car, two Toronto police officers rushed towards him shouting commands with their guns drawn. The videotape recording captured by a witness to the incident shows Bola being kicked several times by an officer until he fell to the ground. Bola was then held down while the second officer delivered over a dozen strikes to his head. Throughout the entire violent arrest, Bola repeatedly pleaded for mercy and shouted his innocence.

Police claim that a reasonable amount of force was used in this situation as they were responding to an attempted burglary close to where Bola, who matched the suspect’s description, parked his car. Bola disagrees with how the police framed their actions in responding to and following up on this incident—an incident that Bola describes as a “brutal” arrest in which he suffered head injuries and emotional trauma due to excessive use of force and resulted in a $5 million lawsuit being against the police. The Special Investigations Unit was not originally contacted, but is now assessing Bola’s injuries to see if they meet the criteria for an investigation to be launched.

The officers’ explanation of their excessive use of force used in this instance has nothing to do with the legal standard for assessing police use of force. The “one plus one theory” is the standard of force that police are authorized to use: this standard states that officers may only use one level of force higher than that which they are confronted. There are five levels of police force according to police training programs, police administration and judicial review: officer presence, dialogue (verbal and non-verbal in the form of advice), empty hands (physical force), compliance tools (tasers) and lethal force. It is this standard of force that their actions will be judged.

Medicalizing murder

A parallel story of police “suspect” misidentification unfolded on August 1, 2011. Charles McGillivary, a 46-year old man who had an intellectual disability and hearing impairment, was out for a walk with his mother when police tackled and restrained him. They rudely Police rudely brushed aside attempts by McGillivary’s mother to explain that her son had an intellectual disability and was deaf, and they refused to release their hold or attempt to resuscitate him as he turned blue. Several months after his killing, the police stated that McGillivary resembled a man they sought after in an unrelated incident.

At the inquest, the jury ruled McGillivary’s death as accidental and focused on the victim’s heart condition rather than the unlawfully violent apprehension and excessive force used by police. The jury also disregarded the officer’s engagement of profiling McGillivary as “non-compliant” on the basis of appearance and behavior without taking into consideration the possibility of disability-related causes. Ultimately, the jury chose to ignore the ableist discrimination that resulted in McGillivary’s death.

The jury, in these regards, favoured evidence that spoke to McGillvary’s overall health and wellness, but these kinds of misplaced and shortsighted decisions lose focus on the core issue of unwarranted state-sanctioned police violence. McGillvary’s heart condition, to be clear, would not have been a problem had he not been subject to a questionable stop, tackled, restrained and then ignored. The misplaced musings of the jury in their decision-making processes and the actions of the police, however, are not all that surprising in that ableist discriminatory practices are somehow unproblematically and enthusiastically supported through the dissemination and maintenance of stereotypes of marginalized populations.


On the evening of July 27, 2013, police targeted an individual perceived as “non-compliant” on a Toronto streetcar, with equally horrific outcomes. Sammy Yatim, an 18-year-old Syrian-born man, did not have a psychiatric history; however, it is speculated that he may have been experiencing mental distress that fatal evening as his behavior was completely out of character. Yatim shouted obscene words and exposed his genitals to fellow passengers, then exposed a 4-inch switchblade. He ordered passengers to remain on the stopped streetcar, but soon afterward ordered them to exit, which they all did.

Over a dozen armed officers arrived at the scene and were scattered on the sidewalk across from the open doors of the streetcar when Constable James Forcillo and his partner approached with their guns drawn. Yatim stood at the top of the stairs, still holding the knife, while Forcillo repeatedly shouted “drop the knife.” Refusing to drop the knife, Yatim stepped away further in the streetcar. When he stepped in, closer to the top stair, Forcillo immediately fired his weapon, shooting Yatim eight times and then once more by a stun gun during the 50-second standoff.

Officer James Forcillo has yet to be cleared of the second-degree murder charge he is currently facing in relation to the Sammy Yatim case. Relying on a self-defence claim, Forcillo claims that he was convinced that his life was in danger. But the officers right beside Forcillo did not feel their lives were in danger as they did not shoot Yatim.  Further, former police chief and use of force expert, Robert Warshaw, testified that Yatim posed “no risk or negligible risk” to the officers at the scene nor did he constitute an impending attack. Forcillo marks the seventh Toronto police officer charged with manslaughter or murder charges in the last 25 years. The six previous officers were all cleared of any wrongdoing. A conviction for a second-degree murder charge of an on-duty police officer is unprecedented nationwide. If (and this is a big if) found guilty Forcillo will be the first and only officer held accountable for his unjustifiable and unlawful actions.

Racism, ableism and sanism

Even when damning evidence exists against Toronto police officers, they have not been held accountable for their rights-depriving, violent and lethal actions toward racialized people with disabilities, and in particular, racialized Mad people.

The videotape recording in Otto Vass’ case (killed in the year 2000), revealed that officers threw the unarmed Hungarian immigrant to the ground, then one officer held him down while three others beat him to death. The four officers were charged with manslaughter, but claimed their use of force to subdue him was justified based on their convincing appeal to the stereotype of Mad people as violent. Despite viewing the officers mercilessly beating Vass, the jury found all four officers not guilty of manslaughter.

In Christopher-Reid’s case, a 26-year-old Black man who was experiencing mental distress in 2004, the officers were also cleared of any wrongdoing despite the evidence against them. Officers accounts were inconsistent with the forensic evidence, which revealed that Christopher-Reid, who had not committed any crime, was running away from the officers when he was shot; not lunging towards the officers as they claimed. Instead of officers provoking a fearful response by shouting commands with their guns drawn, de-escalation techniques and non-lethal force tactics could have alerted and informed the officers that Christopher-Reid was experiencing mental distress and signaled that this was not a criminal justice issue. The role of race in the killing of Christopher-Reid was addressed briefly at his inquest but was dismissed as a contributing factor to his death.

In Byron Debassige’s case, a 28-year-old homeless First Nations man, a contributing factor in his death was not dismissed during the inquest; a complete omission occurred instead. On the evening of February 16, 2008, Debassige stole a couple of lemons from a convenience store. Officers responded to the call with their guns drawn and shouting commands. Debassige refused to drop his 3-inch blade and police fatally shot him four times. The SIU report did not include the non-police witness statements that were inconsistent with those of the police, while also lacking crucial contextual information, such as Debassige’s psychiatric history. The omission of these crucial pieces of information justified the excessive force used by the officers who were cleared of any wrongdoing.

Normalizing violence

In the name of “security,” police violence is normalized. This violence—especially when the victim is racialized, socially disadvantaged, disabled and/or Mad—is perceived as legitimate, necessary, and justified from the perspective of the state, rather than being viewed as excessive.  In all the cases mentioned above, a decontextualized narrative emerges whereby officers state they had no other option but to kill the victim. Police excuses—they were protecting the public, they thought they saw a weapon, they were threatened by the 3-inch blade or were feeling threatened by an unarmed person—have negated accountability and due process and legitimatized police violence.

This legitimacy is ingrained into the foundation of our social structure, evident by jury members repeatedly and consistently deeming officers not guilty, even after they have been confronted with evidence that clearly demonstrates the inconsistencies within the officer’s statements. These police killings are not an error or an unfortunate outcome; they are an element of police power, a legitimized practice of the state and of the social order that authorizes it.

Policing capitalism

Without accountability a pattern is clearly being repeated: officers attempt to force a subject to comply, which then reduces the individual to an object—which then justifies using a higher level of force required relative to the resistance of the suspect and the fabrication of situations that lack legitimacy. Police violence is therefore not solely a matter of the legal system; it is part of police procedure. These killings are committed within a specific cultural structure: a racist, sanist, and ableist collectivity, in which institutional solidarity protects officers with procedure. After every killing, police procedure is merely a performance to the cultural norm rather than to a judicial process.

The over-arching purpose of lethal demands for police compliance is to reinforce and stabilize their policing status position in society through forced recognition: police commands and dictates are unquestionable. The positionality of the police grants them the power to target certain marginalized populations, direct their actions through the imposition of lethal threats for compliance, and to recreate explanatory narratives that justify any and all actions that surface from non-compliance in any number of incidents.

The trend of impunity granted to police after committing a forced attrition of a Mad person reinforces the stereotypes surrounding this population as being criminal and pathological; when the person is also racialized, the prejudices multiply. This is not a technical problem: police violence and the impunity officers are granted for committing these acts is an institutional divide between who is granted humanity and those who are deprived of it. It is a political and social refusal to grant equality and human status to racialized people with disabilities and racialized Mad folks. Police violence is part of social violence, as the social institutions supposedly existing to protect members of the public from criminal violence, fundamentally produce that violence. Police violence and state killings are explicitly conjoined with the existing social structure that authorizes police power.

But in recent years, public support for the police is waning—driven by mobilizations of families and their allies, from the protests against the killing of Sammy Yatim to Black Lives Matter and the fight for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women. These movements, along with Disability Pride and Mad Pride, expose and challenge the multiple oppressions that police violence relies on and reproduces, and the capitalism system that police violence serves.

For further reading, see “The Mad and the bad: The lethal use of force against Mad people by Toronto police.”

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