Why coroner's inquests in Ontario aren’t as useful as you think

By Sandy Hudson, Special to TVO.org - Published on June 2, 2016
Black Lives Matter protest posters at Toronto Police Headquarters
A Black Lives Matter protest in the courtyard at Toronto Police Headquarters, April 1, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Dominic Chan

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Police officers in the city of Toronto act with impunity. At every level, there are serious issues with the accountability measures in place meant to protect the public from a faulty system. This lack of accountability bodies extends outside Toronto to the provincial level as well. Throughout Ontario, black and indigenous people are profiled and targeted by police in ways that others in our society are not, and due to a lack of accountability measures there is very little, if any, recourse our communities have to demand change.

It’s this situation that led Black Lives Matter Toronto to hold a 15-day occupation of Toronto police headquarters earlier this year. Following the Special Investigations Unit’s announcement that no charges should be laid against the police officer who killed Andrew Loku in the hallway of his Toronto apartment building last summer, my organization took action to mobilize black communities in the city.

During this demonstration, our group published a list of demands to focus public discourse on the ways that anti-black racism is built into our system. One of those demands was for a coroner’s inquest into the death of Loku. On April 13, we won that demand.

However, everything that has to do with  police accountability in this province is inadequate — including coroner’s inquests. The inquest into the fatal police shooting of Jermaine Carby in Brampton that concluded last week with 14 jury recommendations is a further demonstration of this.

So why would Black Lives Matter Toronto demand a coroner’s inquest if the process does not provide accountability or justice to the deceased? Well, the process is not entirely useless. I’ll break down the outcomes of coroner’s inquests into three categories: the good, the interesting and the absolutely infuriating.

The good

In Ontario, coroner’s inquests are public hearings held to provide the public with information regarding the circumstances of a person’s death that may previously have been unavailable. Functionally, they look like a court proceeding, but legally and technically they aren’t: instead of a judge, a coroner presides over the hearings, and a jury of five community members also takes part. Some inquests are mandatory, such as for deaths that occur in certain types of workplaces, or while a person is in custody; others are considered discretionary.

With a system shrouded in secrecy like the one we have now, inquests can be important. Let’s take the example of Carby’s case. Nearly two years after he was shot during a street check interaction, an inquest this month finally publicized his killer’s name.

We know that the interaction began when Peel Regional Police Const. Jason Senechal decided to “card” Carby, despite admitting during the inquest that he had no investigative reason for doing so. We know it was Const. Ryan Reid, an officer also on the scene, who discharged his weapon seven times, killing Carby. We know that Reid shot at Carby’s back at least once.

We know that CPR was administered by a plainclothes police officer who happened to be in the area on an unrelated matter, and who, before attending to Carby, marked off the area in caution tape. We know that witnesses contradict Senechal’s and Reid’s claims that Carby had a knife.

The new information available to the public through these details does not provide a systemic shift or address anti-black racism in policing. But it does provide the family answers about what happened to their loved one and an opportunity to seek some form of justice through a civil suit against the officers involved and the police force, should they choose to pursue one.

In a system where the Crown consistently refuses to investigate the brutality experienced by black people at the hands of police through a court of law, this opportunity is important.

The interesting

Though it’s not a trial, an inquest has a jury, and that jury has the ability to make recommendations to try to prevent other deaths.

In Carby’s inquest, the jury made a number of recommendations to various bodies, including the Ontario Police College and Peel Regional Police. Most focused on providing additional training to police officers to avoid racism and excessive use of force.

A quick perusal of the  coroner’s website  reveals that most of the recommendations made in cases involving police over the last few years had to do with training.

These recommendations are an attempt to make some sort of change at the policy level, but inquest juries aren’t specifically required to make them and the recommendations often don’t hold much weight.

The absolutely infuriating

Make no mistake: there is nothing binding about any recommendations made by an inquest jury. This is likely part of the reason why many of the recommendations are so similar.

If we take a look at the latest reports on inquests available from the Office of the Chief Coroner, a disturbing trend emerges. In both 2012 and 2013, less than 15 per cent of the recommendations were implemented. In 2012, 43 per cent of the recommendations made were not directed to the appropriate agency.

So what is the point of an inquest if it’s not to assign blame or to implement changes that stem from recommendations? According to the coroner’s office, it’s to answer these five main questions:

  1. Who was the deceased?
  2. Where did the death occur?
  3. When did the death occur?
  4. How did the death occur?
  5. By what means did the death occur? (Was it suicide, homicide, accidental, a death of natural causes or undetermined?)

Often, in cases involving police officers, we already know the answers to many of these questions, except the fourth. With respect to question five, the answer is almost always homicide. In an inquest, the term “homicide” does not ascribe intent. It simply means, without judgment of whether it was right or wrong, that the death occurred at the hands of another individual.

In all likelihood, homicide will also be the verdict in Loku’s upcoming inquest. We already know the other details.

With their trial-like format and court-like language, it is easy to mistake a coroner’s inquest for the kind of accountability that could be administered through a criminal court. When a verdict of homicide is announced, it appears as though some sort of judgment or justice has been administered, but it’s important to remember that this is simply not the case. Even the coroner’s office stresses this: an inquest is not a process for discovery, not a trial and cannot assign blame.

We need to be aware of what decision-makers are doing when they make it seem as though inquests are a form of justice; inquests are instead used to placate public unrest. After the triple inquests into the police killings of Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klibingaitis and Michael Eligon, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders claimed that the force had implemented 98 per cent of the resulting recommendations, in addition to most of the recommendations in a 2014 report by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci  on police’s use of lethal force. This led to a formal complaint against Saunders by the former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, Alok Mukherjee, who questioned Saunders’ honesty.

Governments and police agencies know what it sounds like to the public when a verdict of homicide is announced: it appears as though there has been some sort of judgment or justice administered. It placates unrest using a system woefully inadequate to actually do or offer what the public is looking for. It’s a way to avoid accountability that could be administered through a criminal court.

We should reject the distraction and mirage of justice we’ve constantly been handed over the years once an inquest is complete. We need far more than the minimal amounts of accountability an inquest is able to provide.

Recommendations from a coroner’s inquest are not an endgame. They are points that should be organized around. Ending political involvement at this point because some sort of justice seems to be had has done nothing to help us in countless inquest cases in the past. The time for empty recommendations is over. If we’re going to show policy-makers that black lives matter, we cannot do this through an inquest process that is essentially toothless.

Sandy Hudson is a community organizer who has spearheaded anti-racism and anti-violence initiatives and is one of the founders of Black Lives Matter Toronto. She is also a graduate student at the University of Toronto studying social justice education, where her research focuses on how post-secondary education policy leaves black students behind.

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