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Canadians Are Much Less Likely To Be Killed By Police. Gun Laws Are A Big Reason Why.

This is the third story in the Mountain West News Bureau series "Elevated Risk," a project powered by America Amplified, a public radio initiative.

A windswept valley cuts through the heart of Lethbridge, Alberta, about an hour north of the border. That wind is what the small prairie city has long been known for. The local hockey team is called the Hurricanes.But these days Lethbridge is known for something else too – crime. The city of 100,000 tops Canada's Crime Severity Index. And as the crime rate has risen, so has the police's use of force.

"It happens in all police agencies and the goal is going to be to not have that kind of stuff happen because other police officers can intervene," said Jeff Cove, who was a police officer in Lethbridge for nearly three decades.

Now, as part of a program called The Watch, he trains police to step in before a fellow officer hurts someone.

"You are actually doing me a favor by intervening, by saving me from myself based on those kinds of things, and that's what the program is all about," Cove said.

It's just one of several programs launched by police in recent years to address social issues and improve relations with the public in Lethbridge.

Such programs are common across Canada, says Tom Stamatakis, the head of one of Canada's national police unions.

This chart compares the rates of people fatally shot by the police in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., over time. People in Canada are five times less likely to be fatally shot by police than people in the U.S.
This chart compares the rates of people fatally shot by the police in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., over time. People in Canada are five times less likely to be fatally shot by police than people in the U.S.

He says that's not all that is similar across Canada's 200 plus police services."In Canada we have a lot more consistency around our recruiting practices and training," Stamatakis said. "We have some national standards when it comes to things like use of force."

On average, Canadians are five times less likely to be shot and killed by the police than here in the U.S. Stamatakis points to better pay and a less militaristic culture in Canada's police services as some of the reasons for that gap.

But he says the biggest difference is the number of guns officers deal with in the U.S.

"You're allowed to have a loaded firearm in your vehicle, for example, in many states," Stamatakis says. "You're allowed to have a loaded firearm on your person in many states, whereas that's not the case in Canada – and it makes a difference."

In other words, Stamatakis says, many cops in the U.S. feel more threatened than their Canadian counterparts, and that means they're more likely to use lethal force. 

In Lethbridge, for example, there have been only two murders in the last three years. Police-involved deaths are even rarer.

But some say the real difference between rates of police violence in Canada and the U.S. has less to do with guns and more to do with differences between the two societies.

"Higher crime rates correlate very tightly with socio-demographic data," said Irvin Waller, an emeritus professor in criminology at the University of Ottawa.

The root causes of police violence are complex, Waller says, but reducing inequality by focusing more on health, education and unemployment programs translate to less crime in general. 

And he believes that leads to fewer negative interactions with police. 

"If you haven't put the equivalent of 10% of what you are spending on reaction into prevention you are not going to have a significant impact on violent crime," he said. 

But even in Canada there are calls for change. Nearly 1,000 people gathered at Lethbridge City Hall in June, part of the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that swept across North America. Local activist Kim Siever was there.

"I think that funding police service more than we fund social programs is backwards," she said.

Siever believes too much of the city's budget goes towards funding the police.

"What prevents crime is addressing the social conditions that lead to crime – reducing poverty reducing homelessness, reducing drug addiction, those sorts of things," she said. 

Defunding the police isn't likely to happen any time soon in Lethbridge, not while the city sits at the top of Canada's Crime Severity Index.

Still, even here on the Canadian prairies, there is a nudge in that direction, a sign that the winds of change may be blowing for police across North America.

An FAQ about this series and the data behind it can be found here.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.