On November 7th, 2019, there occurred an inquest at the John Sopinka Courthouse in Hamilton, Ontario.
The subject of the inquest, the shooting death of Anthony Divers, was being scrutinized. The shooting occurred about 3 years prior, and the officer who discharged his firearm was one Officer Cercone.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was employed as a police constable at the time of the shooting, and was requested by Officer Cercone to drive him home in the morning after the shooting and subsequent immediate investigation.
I attended court on the day that Officer Cercone was testifying, as I was interested to hear his thoughts and insights these years following the shooting. In attendance was the family of Anthony Divers and their lawyer, police/union lawyers, members of the public, and other police officers in the back of the courtroom.
In the opening testimony, we learned that Officer Cercone had interaction with Anthony Divers some 3 weeks prior to the shooting. At that time, there was concern about Mr. Divers mental health, although when he presented to officers, police made the determination that he did not fit the criteria to be taken to the hospital under the Mental Health Act. It was also discussed in testimony that Mr. Divers had a violent past involving criminal acts and being associated with organized crime groups.
I then heard testimony regarding the shooting incident itself. On the night of the incident, Mr. Divers was reported to have punched a female in the downtown area with whom he was involved in a domestic relationship. This assault was captured on cameras, and with that Mr. Divers was to be sought by the police on Reasonable And Probable Grounds for arrest. The female victim made suggestions that Mr. Divers may be in possession of a weapon/firearm. My understanding to this point is that that report was later contested, but nonetheless, Officer Cercone had good reason to suspect that Mr. Divers could be in possession of a firearm.
Officer Cercone began searching the surrounding area for Mr. Divers, and locates him several blocks away. There was testimony given that Officer Cercone and Mr. Divers were, in a way, jockeying for leverage in positioning. Ultimately, Officer Cercone manages to stop Mr. Divers while he is standing on James St South. Officer Cercone appears in the video to be approximately 10 – 15 feet away from Mr. Divers. Moving to the video, we see Mr. Divers moving in a somewhat spasmodic fashion, back and forth rapidly, changing directions, always with his hand down the front of his shirt. Officer Cercone testifies that he yells at Mr. Divers that he will have to shoot him should he not comply with the directions. Mr. Divers shrugs off the suggestion, which is visible in the video. At a point, Mr. Divers takes a step in the direction of Officer Cercone, and Officer Cercone shoots Mr. Divers. Other factors beyond proximity are not seen to change in the moments before the shots are fired. Further officers arrive on scene, and Mr. Divers dies shortly following the shooting.
As to do with my interest in this matter, I pride myself on training and training hard. I was curious to hear what Officer Cercone suggested insofar as training, and how it impacted the outcome of this situation. What I heard was disappointed to say the least.
I will note that Officer Cercone testified that he felt his life was in danger. I wholly agree with that suggestion. Based on the convergence of evidence, and acquired knowledge that Officer Cercone had at the time, it is fair to believe that Mr. Divers was in possession of at least a weapon. It's also a consideration that Mr. Divers was out of sorts, and his actions and later toxicology confirmed the presence of drugs.
With those considerations in place, testimony pertaining to training was disappointing. Officer Cercone testifies that he was trained adequately, which is a suggestion I strongly disagree with. Police officers in Hamilton, Ontario, shoot on the range only once per year. This is based on the mandate and adequacy standards delivered by the Ministry. This training cycle is barely adequate to expect firearms proficiency, let alone combat proficiency. Police officers who hit the target 45/50 shots pass that portion of re-training. As a firearms enthusiast and combat veteran, I can affirm that this threshold to maintain possession and expected combat use of a firearm is negligent. Shooting a gun in combat requires knowledge and mitigation of Survival Stress Reaction, which produces difficulty in both physiological and psychological arenas. Firearms training for police officers needs to involve risk and dynamic inputs. Static shooting on a range will not impart the skills necessary to make the best decision under a great deal of stress.
There are also several flash scenarios which were referenced in testimony. Indeed, during the firearm retraining week, officers are subject to approximately 5 flash scenarios. These are put on by Use of Force instructors and the scenarios are often derived from real situations that officers have faced. Unfortunately, they are merely a rubber stamp to ensure that in the event of an inquest, the officer can say they passed. These scenarios produce no tangible stress, at least not enough to build fortitude under stress. Every officer passes, as training is geared towards the lowest common denominator. As with the fitness test, it continually gets easier and less impact based so as not to produce a loss of street strength.
This was brought up by Officer Cercone, actually. He suggested that risk can't be involved in training as the Hamilton Police Service is already short staffed. Well, that's due to mismanagement, not training. What isn't being acknowledged is that the risk in this entire chain of events was downloaded directly on the subject of the interaction, Mr. Divers.
My position is this, police officers are problem solvers. I worked with officers who were the opposite, they created problems. Not a good prospect for backup and I would actively avoid taking calls with such people. Officer Cercone created a problem on this call. In my opinion, this isn't due to his negligence or any character shortcoming, but due to the failure of the Hamilton Police Service to properly train him. I have the same opinion of James Forcillo in the Toronto Street Car Shooting.
The only known factor is that Anthony Cercone didn't have a firearm. The police have produced a narrative that Mr. Cercone was a criminal with a lengthy and scary history. I expect police to operate off of known variables, not feelings about a person. Anthony Cercone was in crisis, and was faced down by anofficer standing in the middle of open terrain, not seeking cover, at the high ready, shouting commands. All these factors add intrinsic stress to the officer, and through training those factors can be mitigated. It comes down to confidence and stress management.
The Chief of Police, and the head of the Training Branch bear a burden of responsibility for the negative outcome in this situation. Without putting their failures under a microscope, expect no change in the behaviour of the police in the future.
To quote Officer Cercone, “Can't think of anything they could train to change the outcome”.
Thinking, it seems, is needed more so than training.
- Josh Coulter