When Toronto Suspect Said ‘Kill Me,’ an Officer Put Away His Gun


The man who helped devise the police training in Toronto agreed.

“These are all the lessons we teach in our training,” said Mike Federico, a deputy chief of the Toronto police who retired last September after 45 years with the force. “This is a great visual.”

Constable Lam is a traffic officer in the north end of Toronto and a seven-year veteran of the force, the local police union said. Each year, he would have received one day of de-escalation and mental health training, drafted under Deputy Chief Federico’s supervision and put in place by the Toronto police in 2016.

The training was created partly in response to several high-profile confrontations between the Toronto police and civilians in crisis that ended in death.

Mr. Minassian drove the white Ryder van down Toronto’s main street, hitting pedestrians along a one-mile stretch. Ten people were killed and 14 were injured. On Tuesday, Mr. Minassian was charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder. Another charge is expected.

After Mr. Minassian stopped the van, he was encountered by Constable Lam. Video recordings of that high-stress confrontation, captured by a number of bystanders and stitched together by The New York Times, tell a story that can be dissected, step by step.

First, Constable Lam turned off the siren blaring from his car. This immediately lowered the temperature, experts said, making it easier for him to communicate with the suspect. Also, by leaning into the car, the officer is indicating that he is not in a rush.

“It is about slowing things down, using time and distance to de-escalate the situation,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, which develops best policing practices. “The most important thing at a time like this is time and communications.”

Constable Lam continues to shout, loudly but calmly, “Get down.” The suspect replies, “Kill me.”

“No, get down,” Constable Lam repeats.

When the suspect yells that he has a gun in his pocket, Constable Lam replies: “I don’t care. Get down.”

Photo

People gathered Tuesday in Toronto at a memorial for those killed by a van driver a day earlier.

Credit
Cole Burston/Getty Images

Learning how to handle situations like this — known as suicide-by-cop — is part of the training, former Deputy Chief Federico said.

“It’s clear the officer is listening and is not worried,” he said. “He’s not going to act out of fear. We train police officers to not in any way be provoked.”

Next, the video shows, Constable Lam steps out and away from the cover of his car, indicating perhaps that he has assessed that the object in Mr. Minassian’s hand was not a gun.

Constable Lam then issues his first warning: “Get down or you’ll get shot.”

Throughout the encounter, the officer repeats the same simple command to get down. Yasmeen Krameddine, director of research and development at ProTraining, an Alberta organization that trains police forces in how to de-escalate confrontations involving people with mental health illness, said that it might have been better if he had varied his language.

“We train officers to offer step-by-step instructions, and when they see a person is not responding to their commands, to use different words,” she said.

But, she added, “In this situation, there was no time for that.”

Constable Lam then backs away from Mr. Minassian, who walks toward him, threatening object in hand. In response, the officer appears to replace his gun with a baton, visibly de-escalating the threat to Mr. Minassian.

Former Deputy Chief Federico said the officer was applying his training, to weigh the necessity of force deemed reasonable and choose the option best for the situation.

“Sometimes officers put themselves in a position where they have no other choice but to use force,” said Denise Rodriguez, a Washington-based researcher with CNA Analysis Solutions who has spent years delving into how police departments in the United States use force.

Then, Constable Lam confidently and slowly approaches the suspect with his baton in hand. By the time the officer reaches him, Mr. Minassian has dropped the object in his hand, raised his hands in surrender, turned and laid down on his stomach with his hands behind his back.

Constable Lam doesn’t even use his baton. He merely handcuffs him.

“Clearly the guy driving the van was on the edge; he knows what he just did. But by the way the officer handled himself, he ends up becoming docile and submits to an arrest,” said Mr. Serpas, the former New Orleans police chief. “It was a great outcome in a horrible situation.”

The video, in Canada and the United States, might seem to be a rare one because of its ending. In both countries, bystander videos involving police interactions often go viral for the opposite reason — someone is killed.

In Toronto, an amateur video that surfaced in 2013 captured the sounds of a police officer, James Forcillo, shooting an 18-year-old man wielding a knife. The officer’s first volley of three shots, which felled the suspect, was followed by six more, when the man was already on the ground.

Officer Forcillo was found guilty of attempted murder for the second round of shots, and sentenced to six years in prison. He has appealed the verdict.

But many experts say the video of Constable Lam and Mr. Minassian is more typical of high-stress encounters between the police and civilians, ones that end without death.

“Most of the time, these examples don’t generate interest because they are not sensational,” Mr. Federico said.

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Toronto Van Attack Suspect Is Charged with Murder


Still, the killings raised fears about Toronto’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack. The marauding van evoked memories of deadly vehicle rampages carried out by extremists in a number of major Western cities in recent years, including New York, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Barcelona and Nice, France.

At his court hearing Tuesday, asked by the judge, Stephen Weisberg, whether he understood the conditions of a court order not to contact any survivors, Mr. Minassian replied in a clear and loud voice, “Yes.”

He was dressed in a white jumpsuit with his hands cuffed behind his back. Seven uniformed police officers surrounded him in the hearing room.

Mr. Minassian was represented at the hearing by a court-appointed lawyer with whom he had an extended, whispered conversation from a prisoners box.

He is being held without bail.

A man who appeared to be Mr. Minassian’s father attended the hearing but offered no comment to reporters other than saying he had not spoken with him.

Witnesses and amateur cellphone videos that captured the rampage and the suspect’s arrest showed a horrific scene that traumatized Toronto, a showcase Canadian metropolis.

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Vic Minassian, the father of the suspect, Alek Minassian, attended a court hearing on Tuesday but offered no comment to reporters other than saying he had not spoken with his son.

Credit
Lars Hagberg/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

David Alce, a 53-year-old network engineer, was waiting at a traffic light at Yonge Street and Finch Avenue on his way to the park to enjoy a sunny day off when he saw a white van careening across the intersection.

Around 1:20 p.m., Mr. Alce said, his initial disbelief turned to shock and then horror as the speeding van cut through the intersection, mounted the curb and began to swerve and mow people down.

Mr. Alce saw the driver ram four people, he said, and then another four. One woman was thrown several feet into the air. A man was hit midsection before falling. Another was smashed in the head. The van made a roaring sound.

“At first I thought the driver was having a heart attack before I realized what was happening,” Mr. Alce said.

“I watched the car for a good two blocks,” he said. “I didn’t see the driver’s face. There was a loud bang as he hit the curb. There was confusion. Some people tended to the wounded. Others were on their cellphones. One woman was sobbing uncontrollably on the corner.”

Mr. Alce, for his part, went to see whether could help, rolling over some of the victims to see whether they were alive and administering CPR.

Mr. Alce, an Ottawa native, said he moved to Toronto about 20 years ago, drawn by the city’s peaceful atmosphere and lack of crime. He said the attack had destroyed the innocence of a multicultural, humanistic city.

“This is the first time I have seen something this horrific,” he said. “It is a loss of innocence. Toronto is peaceful. That is why I love it here.”

Other Torontonians, still in shock, were adamant that the city would quickly recover. On Tuesday morning, commuters heading to work were hunched over newspapers. “Carnage in Toronto,” said the front-page headline of The Globe and Mail.

As well-wishers continued to gather at an impromptu memorial near the scene of the attack, hazardous material cleanup teams wearing respirators and jump suits were using absorbent powder to remove bloodstains from the sidewalk.

Nancy Brooks, 56, who works in human resources for the Ontario government, often jogs through the area where the episode occurred. She said that in Canada, which prides itself on diversity and a spirit of tolerance, it was particularly jarring.

“This is not something that happens here,” she said. “We always think we are insulated from this kind of thing. We like to think we are like Switzerland.”

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