Constable Ken Lam provided a classic example of de-escalation under extreme stress when he encountered a driver who had just driven his rental van onto a Toronto sidewalk, killing 10 people.
He pointed an object threateningly at Constable Ken Lam, the Toronto police officer who was the first to encounter him as he stepped outside of his rental van.
Lam pulled out his gun and commanded the man, Alek Minassian, 25, identified by the police as the driver who had plowed down dozens of pedestrians on a busy street on Monday, to get down.
But before rushing toward him, or firing his gun, Lam did something else: He paused, walked briskly back to his car and turned off its blaring siren.
Policing experts cited that as the first sign not only of Lam’s calm-under-fire composure, but also, and more important, of the training he had in de-escalation tactics. There were many more.
“This is going to be a great training video in the future,” said Ronal Serpas, who led police departments in New Orleans and Nashville, Tennessee, and is now a professor at Loyola University. “It almost gives you chills how well he handled himself.”
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.”
Lam is a traffic officer 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.
The training was created partly in response to several high-profile confrontations between the Toronto police and civilians in crisis that ended in death.
Minassian drove the white Ryder van down Toronto’s main street, hitting pedestrians along a one-mile stretch, police said. Ten people were killed and 14 were injured. On Tuesday, Minassian was charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder. Another charge is expected.
After Minassian stopped the van, he was encountered by Lam. Video recordings of that high-stress confrontation tell a story that can be dissected, step by step.
First, 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 Police Executive Research Forum. “The most important thing at a time like this is time and communications.”
Lam continues to shout, loudly but calmly, “Get down.” The suspect replies, “Kill me.”
“No, get down,” Lam repeats.
When the suspect yells that he has a gun in his pocket, Lam replies: “I don’t care. Get down.”
Learning how to handle situations like this — known as suicide-by-cop — is part of the training, Federico said.
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“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, Lam steps out and away from the cover of his car, indicating perhaps that he has assessed that the object in Minassian’s hand was not a gun.
Lam then issues his first warning: “Get down or you’ll get shot.”
Lam then backs away from Minassian, who walks toward him. In response, the officer appears to replace his gun with a baton, visibly de-escalating the threat to Minassian.
Federico said the officer was applying his training, to weigh the necessity of force deemed reasonable and choose the best option.
“Sometimes officers put themselves in a position where they have no other choice but to use force,” said Denise Rodriguez, a researcher with CNA Analysis Solutions who has spent years delving into how police departments use force.
Then, Lam confidently and slowly approaches the suspect with his baton in hand. By the time the officer reaches him, Minassian has dropped the object in his hand, raised his hands in surrender, turned and lain down on his stomach with his hands behind his back.
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 Serpas. “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.
But many experts say the video of Lam and Minassian is more typical of high-stress encounters between police and civilians, ones that end without death.
“Most of the time, these examples don’t generate interest because they are not sensational,” Federico said.