OTTAWA — The federal government says it wants the RCMP to ban the use of two crowd-control tools that forces across the country say they have in their arsenals: sponge rounds and CS gas.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino's office confirmed that it wants the measures outlawed, even as the RCMP declines to say whether or not it will comply with that instruction.
The decision to restrict even the use of "less lethal" alternatives to crowd-control tools such as rubber bullets and stronger forms of tear gas has some critics questioning whether the federal Liberals are playing politics with policing.
"Removing less lethal options from our members' available options raises real concerns for public and police officer safety," National Police Union president Brian Sauvé said in a statement.
The confirmation that the federal Liberals want the tools banned comes after The Canadian Press raised questions about a mandate letter Mendicino gave to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki last year.
The letter directed the force to stop using three use-of-force methods: the "carotid control" neck hold, rubber bullets and tear gas.
The RCMP made headlines recently when it confirmed that it still allows officers to use the controversial neck hold despite those instructions and the fact that other police forces have stopped using it.
The force does not use rubber bullets or the more-dangerous chemical compounds referred to as tear gas, which cause irritation to a person's eyes and mucous membranes.
But the minister's office is now clarifying that it wants similar tools banned, too.
Mendicino's office said in a statement that it used the terms "rubber bullets" and "tear gas" in the mandate letter "as they are general language understood by most Canadians."
It confirmed that it considers the milder CS gas and extended-range impact weapons, which fire foam rounds, to be the operational terms for such tools — meaning that it does want the RCMP to stop using them.
That came as news to Sauvé and other experts, who say that the decision is a departure from existing policy, since police forces across the country and around the world have such crowd-control methods in their arsenals.
The RCMP said in a statement that it is "working with partners, stakeholders and bargaining agents" to review the mandate letter — and gave no indication that it intends to follow Mendicino's orders.
"The RCMP continues to report publicly on our use of police intervention options, including the carotid control technique and the 40 millimetre extended range impact weapon that fires sponge-tipped rounds, not rubber bullets, as well as the use of specialty munitions," it said.
It added that its extended range weapons, in use since 2017, "provide an officer with more time and distance from an individual being responded to in order to better enable de-escalation and communication, when tactically feasible."
Public disclosures show that the RCMP used CS gas 102 times in 2021, and it used extended-range impact weapons 86 times.
The public order units of major municipal police forces, including in Vancouver and Toronto, confirmed to The Canadian Press that they also have access to the tools.
In an interview, Western University criminologist Michael Arntfield argued that CS gas is "entirely different" than the compounds typically referred to as tear gas, and sponge rounds are different than rubber bullets.
He said tear and rubber bullets are "very inflammatory terms," bringing up images of coups d'état, or of police attacking people who had been marching for Black civil rights outside Selma, Ala., in 1965.
"I'm not sure why those terms would be used if the government was serious about looking at less lethal alternatives."
Arntfield said he is "genuinely confounded" about why Mendicino would "tack on" a request for the RCMP to stop using police tools that are commonplace across Canada in asking them to stop using the neck hold.
"It looks like political theatre and has absolutely nothing to do with law enforcement operations."
On Parliament Hill this week, Mendicino said broadly that there is a need to reform law enforcement institutions.
"We are closely consulting and collaborating with law enforcement and experts in the area to take an evidence-based approach so that we can keep our community safe, while at the same time making sure that police have the tools they need when it comes to de-escalating," Mendicino said.
But he would not answer questions about why the RCMP seems to be defying his instructions, walking away from reporters when the question was posed.
El Jones, an activist who helped lead a study on defunding police forces, says police are "an unaccountable force in Canada."
The fact that the RCMP is not following political direction shows that impunity, she argued. "I think the police are very much signalling to us, no one can tell us what to do."
The issue of which tools are and aren't available to police is receiving heightened attention following the killing of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by police in Memphis, Tenn., in early January.
The "carotid control" neck hold, which the RCMP reported it used 14 times in 2021, had been widely condemned after George Floyd was killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.
Jones said police are not transparent enough about their policies or how much training they provide for officers when it comes to the use of force.
"We don't have good use-of-force study in Canada," she said. "The picture of use of force in Canada, period, by the police, is just not very clear."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2023.
David Fraser, The Canadian Press