Way police deal with the mentally ill at a ‘turning point,’ observers say

A police officer attends the scene at the Queen Street subway station entrance in Toronto on Dec. 13, 2013, in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Doug Ives

A police officer attends the scene at the Queen Street subway station entrance in Toronto on Dec. 13, 2013, in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Doug Ives

Diana Mehta, The Canadian Press

TORONTO - Whether the victim was a scissors-wielding mentally ill man, a soldier with post traumatic stress disorder or a teen with a knife on an empty street car, police shootings of those in crisis appear to have sparked a polarizing debate.

At a time when statistics suggest one in five Canadians experiences a mental health illness in any given year, there’s growing concern about how police deal with some of society’s most vulnerable.

While public outcry following some high-profile shootings has at times led to street protests and accusations of excessive police brutality, senior police officials say they’ve made the issue a priority.

Those in the upper echelons of law enforcement also say, however, that officers are only human.

“I’m not going to tell you that we’re perfect,” says Vancouver police chief Jim Chu, who is president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

“What I will say is that the vast majority of police officers in Canada try very hard to act within the law, but also to handle those difficult, chaotic, dynamic situations. The vast majority of times they resolve peacefully.”

The association issued a call this year to shift from dealing with a crisis to preventing it in the first place through more health-care funding and government support for the mentally ill.

Police appear to lack national measuring tools, however, to see if training on de-escalation techniques is succeeding on the street, and there aren’t any easily available national statistics on police interactions with the mentally ill, said Chu, partly because of the patchwork of forces across the country.

He added that police come under a great deal of scrutiny when an encounter ends with an injury or death — including watchdog investigations, civil suits and coroner’s inquests.

“Unfortunately those things happen and we don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘oh that client or that situation we’re not going to deal with,'” he said. “If we want more accountability than that, then I say bring it on.”

The heightened focus on the issue has some saying Canada could be at a critical juncture, with 2014 poised to be a year in which key changes could be wrought in how authorities deal with the mentally ill.

Many are working towards a conference planned for the spring of next year — a joint initiative between the police chiefs association and the Mental Health Commission — which will take an in-depth look at the issue. Simultaneously, a number of police departments have emphasized training which focuses on de-escalation.

“I think we’re at a turning point, I think what these situations this year have really demonstrated is that the public demands that we do better,” said Camille Quenneville, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Ontario division.

There are worries, however, that having such a spotlight on interactions between police and the mentally ill risks reinforcing the misconception that a mentally ill person is a violent one.

“There’s nothing to suggest there’s a link there,” said Quenneville, adding that statistics show those with a mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators.

“These situations, although they’ve had a lot of attention, are very rare,” she said. “There are many family members who rely heavily on police to help them in crisis situations.”

But some families whose loved ones have died in police shootings say there are crucial times when officers failed to help.

One example is the case of Reyal Jardine-Douglas, whose sister called 911 when her mentally ill brother boarded a transit bus. The 25-year-old was shot after he pulled a knife from a backpack and advanced on police who approached him.

His family has said they were devastated at how the situation was handled and demanded changes in how officers confront people they know to be mentally unstable.

Another case — which appeared to galvanize public outcry against police use of force — was that of Sammy Yatim, who was shot multiple times while apparently wielding a knife on an empty streetcar.

The incident, captured on cellphone and surveillance video, prompted hundreds to take to the streets of Toronto demanding justice, while Yatim’s family asked why no one among the multiple officers at the scene stepped forward to offer mediation that might have prevented the tragedy.

In some cases, police can call in teams which involve a psychiatric nurse or someone with expertise in dealing with a person experiencing a crisis. But often there aren’t enough of those teams available and they don’t get to places in time.

To head off a crisis before it gets to a point where guns are drawn, some suggest officers work more closely with third party non-medical facilities which offer police referral and crisis intervention services.

To certain critics, however, long-entrenched “policing culture” is to blame for crisis incidents that end badly.

“The current culture is command and control,” said John Sewell, spokesman for the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition who is also a former city mayor. “We need a different response.”

Sewell would like to see those in crisis dealt with primarily by specialized teams, as a hostage situation might be.

“You can’t have a general police officer responding because their culture is the wrong culture,” he said.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada, however, expresses a bit more hope in police.

“I sense a willingness and an openness,” said commission president Louise Bradley. “But it’s highly emotionally charged issue.”

Bradley pointed out that a number of factors lead to police having to confront a person in crisis.

“We’re looking at an issue that involves everything from poverty and homelessness, to the training of how to deal with people with mental illnesses,” she said. “Another issue is the whole issue of mental health of police officers themselves — that’s a very important matter.”

The commission is currently in the process of reviewing training provided to forces across the country with plans to make recommendations. Trying to create some sort of national training standards which take cues from “pockets of excellence” across the country, is another goal it’s working towards.

“Mental health issues have largely been misunderstood,” said Bradley. “There’s now more attention being paid by police forces to dealing with stigma that I have never seen before.”

© The Canadian Press, 2013

The Canadian Press