Here’s How Police in Canada Are Becoming More Militarized

The C8 Carbine is advertised as having “been battle proven in harsh combat environments … for over 25 years,” but, according to the Toronto police, the weapon’s lightness and accuracy also makes it well-suited for Canada’s urban environments. Plus, it can pierce body armor.

By May, the Toronto Police Service, Canada’s largest municipal force, will begin arming regular officers with the semi-automatic rifle, placing them in one patrol car in each of the cities’ 17 divisions. It’s the latest example of a wave of Canadian police forces arming up; in December, Winnipeg purchased an armored vehicle, at least partly in response to a fatal shooting of officers in an east coast city, while other Canadian cities have long stocked their own C8 assault rifles.

The move is part of what some observers see as a broader North American trend to increasingly use weapons of war to police civilians. But the Toronto police say the C8 is a tool required by the demands and dangers of their job — and one that will keep both civilians and officers safer.

“In a situation where you might be confronting a threat, these are the just a better tool,” Constable David Hopkinson told VICE News. “We see what the world trends are and we have to prepare for anything that may happen here. We’ve seen an increase in the use of body armor and different things like this and we have to respond to that.”

In the United States the ongoing epidemic of mass shootings, and killing of civilians — disproportionately men of color — by police presents a conundrum around how to guard against violence — from both criminals and cops.

But in Canada, where gun controls are stricter and violent crime rates lower, the 2014 shooting of five Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in Moncton, New Brunswick raised questions about whether the country’s law enforcement is equipped to handle well-armed shooters. Three of the five mounties were killed and an RCMP internal review of the incident suggested officers receive more training on the use of body armor and the force’s patrol rifles — which include the C8.

In the year-and-half since Moncton, police budgets have gone up, Toronto’s by $27-million to stand at just over $1-billion, and polices forces have rolled out new equipment that they hope will protect officers. For Winnipeg this includes the eight gun ports and 17,000 pounds of blast-protected steel and glass of a new MPV armored vehicle, which the city’s police superintendent said was purchased partially in response to the New Brunswick shootings.

“At the end of the day, we have had officers and members of the public that are put at great peril during [active shooter] operations,” Supt. Gord Perrier told the Winnipeg Free Press, explaining the $343-thousand purchase.

‘One lesson to learn from the US is that the more SWAT forces have been used for routine policing activities, the more innocent people die at the hands of police.’

Most major Canadian cities had an armored vehicle like the MPV for years before the shooting in Moncton. But a criminology professor at the University of Winnipeg said that risk of police overreach — as in the crackdowns during the Toronto G20 summit in 2010 and following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — should act as a caution against the proliferation of military equipment to civilian police. He also warned that the wider use of weapons previously reserved for tactical forces creates dangers.

“One lesson to learn from the US is that the more SWAT forces have been used for routine policing activities, the more innocent people die at the hands of police,” Kevin Walby said in an interview.

The C8s to be placed on gun racks in Toronto patrol cars have been in use by the city’s police force for over a decade. They were carried, Hopkinson said, by units like the organized crime and emergency task forces and are now meant to serve street cops as an alternative to the shotgun — one less likely to send a stray slug into an unintended target. The city is also giving wider use to less lethal weapons. The newly defunct shotguns will be replaced with “sock guns,” which fire non-penetrative kevlar sacks akin to bean bags, and placed in the same cars as the C8s. Officers, Hopkinson said, will receive additional training in the use of the new weapons.

Peter Kraska, an expert on the militarization of police in the United States, said that the wider use of the C8, like most public policy decisions, presents trade-offs. On the one hand, said the professor at Eastern Kentucky University, they provide front-line officers a better tool for handling dangerous situations. On the other, the show of arms can lead the public to see the police as an occupying force and change the way officers view themselves.

“The mindset that goes along with that type of weapon could, and often does, lead to unintended consequences … officers see themselves more as warriors than they do as guardians,” Kraska explained.

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