45-year old father of five, Andrew Loku (who was mentally ill), was fatally shot dead by Toronto police early on Sunday, July 5th. Eyewitness Robin Hicks told of what occurred that fatal morning. According to Hicks, three women living on the floor above Loku’s apartment on Gilbert Avenue were being rather noisy. Loku, armed with a hammer, was in their apartment for 10 minutes before Hicks removed him. Two police officers approached Loku demanding he drop his weapon. Loku did not follow suit and instead took a few steps towards the police officers, shot dead within mere seconds. The Toronto community has erupted in outrage, stating that Loku was not a threat and did not deserve to die. As tweeted by Black Lives Matter Toronto, “Over 50% of people who have been killed by @TorontoPolice who experience mental health histories are black men. Alarming #blacklivesmatter.” The complex where this event occurred is subsidized by the Canadian Mental Health Association to aid people with mental health issues, providing them with affordable housing. The Urban Alliance on Race Relations stated that Loku “…had been carrying a hammer and was distressed. He was not a threat, as a helpful neighbour was present helping him calm down. Mr. Loku had been complaining about constant noise from a resident who lived above him. All he wanted was to sleep. Mr. Loku was suffering from mental health issues. He was a child soldier survivor from South Sudan. His country has been involved in Civil War since 1983.” Kiden Jonathan,longtime friend of Andrew Loku, was present at the press conference recently held in regards to this fatal incident. Both Jonathan and Loku were natives of South Sudan, spoke the same rare dialect, and came to Canada to escape the violence of their war-torn nation. Jonathan stood up during the press conference stating, “Andrew survived war, and then had to be killed here,” before collapsing to the ground.
The events of July 5th brought to light the harsh truth staring us in the face. Black Lives Matter is not an American issue, it is Canadian too. Jonathan, along with multiple close friends of Loku’s, have teamed up with community groups such as Black Lives Matter Toronto, the African Canadian Legal Clinic and the Canadian Mental Health Association, in calling for an end to fatal police shootings involving black, emotionally disturbed men. There have been numerous cases with Toronto police fatally interacting with black men who live with mental health challenges. In the last decade, the shooting deaths of Michael Eligon, Reyal Jardine-Douglas, O’Brien Christopher-Reid, and Ian Pryce, are examples such cases. Roger Love who works with ACLC, stated, “Far too often, black and racialized persons lose their lives, are subject to excessive force, have their lives completely disregarded by public institutions, including police services.” This is especially true when mental illness is an added aspect. Kiden Jonathan reported that Loku was still suffering psychological trauma from being a youth soldier while living in South Sudan saying, “He told me he would sometimes still hear the gunshots.”
The facts are clear. Loku was not a threat to society and especially was not a threat to two armed police officers. Guns are not and never should be the initial solution when armed with multiple other ways for diffusing a tense situation. The two police officers made a snap decision and cost a man his life, and a distorted future for his children.
Police chief Mark Saunders was not available for comment and has not publicly commented on Loku’s death. Toronto police spokesperson, Mark Pugash, invited those wanting to see a race-based examination of use of force by police to write to Chief Saunders with their concerns. Unfortunately these are not concerns. We are not writing about a leak in the ceiling. We are writing about the death of an innocent mentally ill man, who was shot within seconds at the hands of your police officers. We should not have to write to Saunders with our concerns as Saunders should be engaging with the Toronto community on how to improve. Saunders should be seen discussing with local Black organizations/movement groups. Pugash should not be shrugging off this as our problem. The death of a man is everyone’s problem. The death of a mentally ill man is everyone’s problem. The death of a black mentally ill man is everyone’s problem. It is not a concern. It is a problem. In choosing to not engage with the community and admit the racial aspect of this incident, Pugash and Saunders, as well as the Toronto police, have chosen a side. With race, there are two sides. You can be the oppressor, you can be the one against the oppressor, or you can be silent. In silence, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. In being the oppressor, you have chosen the side that many before you have chosen, but many after you will make sure ceases to exist.
There is not a need, but a crucial necessity, for officers to be thoroughly trained in how to defuse tense situations through de-escalation techniques. One such technique could, and should, be offering someone in emotional distress help as opposed to the police challenge — an officer yelling an order to “drop your weapon.” An action plan dealing directly with police shootings of Black individuals — especially those with mental health issues, is another necessity.
Black Lives Matter was chanted across America and echoes of change were spread. Now Canada, it is our time for radical change. Our echoes need to begin.
You can find further information on this tragic event on Leanwords.