July 29, 2014 10:39 am
Updated: July 29, 2014 10:47 am

Should we be hiring more compassionate cops?

A still from a video posted to YouTube by user Martin Baron shows Toronto police in an altercation with 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a streetcar in Toronto early Saturday morning, July 28, 2013.

Screengrab from Youtube / Martin Barin

The head of Toronto’s civilian police watchdog thinks aspiring officer​s should have to volunteer​ with people who have mental illness.

“For some time I have raised … the idea of requiring that those who come to work for us have spent some time actually volunteering with a mental health service organization,” Toronto Police Services Board Chair Alok Mukherjee said in an interview.

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The goal: To ensure the people protecting Torontonians don’t discriminate against its most vulnerable.

The death of teenager Sammy Yatim, shot to death by police a year ago, has become one of the most visible examples of fatal encounters between police and people in crisis.

A 114-page report from former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci last week laid out recommendations on how police can better deal with their role as, effectively, the front lines of a fractured mental health system.

READ MORE: The case for better funding of mental health services

As far as Mukherjee knows, Toronto would be the first police force in North America to make mental health volunteer work a requirement for applicants.

Mukherjee lauded Iacobucci’s report, which suggested police forces shift their recruitment focus to give preference to people who’ll show empathy and compassion – especially when faced with someone psychiatrically sick or emotionally unstable.

Mukherjee also wants to change the way Ontario’s Police College trains officers, and the province’s competencies and education level required of recruits.

The Ministry of Correctional Services and Community Safety is discussing raising the education required for people to become constables, he said. The idea, he added, is that people with more experience, and more varied experience, make more effective officers.

“I would certainly be very much supportive of the higher educational requirement and the kinds of areas Iacobucci has identified – social work, psychology and so on,” Mukherjee said.

Giving preference to recruits with these backgrounds, and ensuring they already have experience working with mental illness, helps ensure officers will approach people in crisis as human beings, he added.

He also wants, as Iacobucci has suggested, to alter the psychological screening program all applicants go through, to screen for “any negative stereotypes or stigma.”

Does that mean he thinks existing officers are insufficiently compassionate, or discriminate against the mentally ill?

“There is a perception of people suffering from mental illness in society. And there is a proportion of people who have a negative perception. And we recruit from this society,” he said. “So if we are not screening for it, I won’t be surprised if we get some people who carry those attitudes or those perceptions.”

Mike McCormack, head of the Toronto Police Association, agreed empathy’s important but said he sees it more as a training issue.

“I just don’t know how you would achieve that through the hiring process,” he said. “I think then you’re going to be really narrowing the scope when you’re looking at candidates. I think that’s something that needs to be provided in training.”

That said, he agrees that his members, like any other segment of society, have their biases.

“There’s still a stigma, even within police culture, about mental illness and mental health and PTSD,” he said. “And that’s something that we’re working on.”

IN DEPTH: First responders speak out on PTSD

It’s vital for police to use that focus in their recruiting, said B.C.-based psychologist Jeff Morley, who’s worked extensively with first responders.

“One of the big gaps in police hiring and promotion is the lack, for many departments, of testing and hiring based on emotional intelligence, which includes empathy,” he said.

“Part of the problem with policing is that often, the work, police work, the exposure to trauma and unfixable suffering, it leads to something called ‘compassion fatigue.’ … People get emotionally shut down because what they’re exposed to on the job.”

And that impedes their ability to read emotions and deal with people as human beings, Morley said.

A spokesperson from Calgary police said the force is reviewing Iacobucci’s report but hasn’t yet made an assessment of its recruitment recommendations.

Vancouver Police Constable Brian Montague noted applicants already must undergo multiple interviews, a psychological assessment and a full-day role-playing assessment “to examine a variety of personal dimensions essential in policing.”

“A successful applicant will have the ability to show compassion and empathy,” he wrote in an email, later adding that the force is always looking to tweak and improve its recruitment methods.

(Similar queries put to Hamilton and Edmonton police forces were not answered Monday.)

READ MORE: How police forces deal with people in crisis

Mukherjee is also eyeing a Hamilton, Ont., strategy patterned off one developed on Memphis, Tenn.: He’d like to give some officers more in-depth mental health training, so that there are first responders on the ground who can deal with these types of situations.

Right now, Toronto’s Mobile Crisis Intervention Units are only available for part of the day, in part of the city. And they’re never the first ones on the scene: The first responders call them in if they think the crisis intervention team is needed.

“The big question is one of safety,” Mukherjee said. “And my sense is that if [police] had a certain comfort level if they did not have those negative attitudes … they would be assessing safety quite differently.”

Empathy in uniform: Read Hon. Frank Iacobucci’s recommendations for changes to police recruitment

RECOMMENDATION 6: The TPS change mandatory application qualifications for new constables to require the completion of a Mental Health First Aid course, in order to ensure familiarity and some skill with this core aspect of police work.

RECOMMENDATION 7: The TPS give preference or significant weight to applicants who have:

(a) Community Service: engaged in significant community service, to demonstrate community-mindedness and the adoption of a community service mentality. Community service with exposure to people in crisis should be valued;

(b) Mental Health Involvement: past involvement related to the mental health community, be it direct personal experience with a family member, work in a hospital, community service, or other contributions; and

 (c) Higher Education: completed a post-secondary university degree or substantially equivalent education.

RECOMMENDATION 8: The TPS amend its application materials and relevant portions of its website to ensure that applicants for new constable positions are directed to demonstrate in their application materials any qualifications relevant to Recommendation 7.

RECOMMENDATION 9: The TPS consider whether to recruit actively from certain specific educational programs that teach skills which enable a compassionate response to people in crisis, such as nursing, social work, and programs relating to mental illness.

RECOMMENDATION 10: The TPS direct its Employment Unit to hire classes of new constables that, on the whole, demonstrate diversity of educational background, specialization, skills, and life experience, in addition to other metrics of diversity.

RECOMMENDATION 11: The TPS instruct psychologists, in carrying out their screening function for new constable selection, to assess for positive traits, in addition to assessing for the absence of mental illness or undesirable personality traits. In this aim, the TPS, in consultation with the psychologists, should identify a specific set of positive traits it wishes to have for new recruits and should instruct the psychologists to screen-in for those traits.

RECOMMENDATION 12: The TPS include the psychologists in the decision- making process for new constable selection, in a manner similar to their involvement in selecting officers for the ETF.

RECOMMENDATION 13: The TPS compile data to allow the Service to evaluate the effectiveness of the psychological screening tests that it has used in selecting recruits. Relevant data may include data that show what test results correlate with officers who have satisfactory and unsatisfactory interactions with people in crisis. Working group regarding Psychological Services

RECOMMENDATION 14: The TPS strike a working group that includes participation from the TPS Psychological Services unit to comprehensively consider the role of Psychological Services within the TPS, including:

 (a) More Information: whether the current process for psychological screening of new constables is effective and whether it could be improved, including whether TPS psychologists should be given more information about candidates to assist them in interpreting their test results;

(b) Involvement of Psychologists in other Promotion Decisions: whether Psychological Services should be authorized to conduct evaluations of, and otherwise be involved in, discussions regarding the selection processes for officer promotions within the Service, and the selection of coach officers;

(c) MCIT: whether the TPS psychologists should be involved in the selection and training of officers and nurses for the MCIT. More broadly, the TPS should consider how to facilitate a close and ongoing relationship between the psychologists and the MCIT in order to enable collaboration and information sharing between the Service’s two units with a primary focus on mental illness;

(d) Organizational Structure: whether the TPS should amend its organizational structure so that Psychological Services reports directly or on a dotted-line basis to a Deputy Chief, in order to give greater recognition to the operational role that they play; and

(e) Expanding Psychological Services: how Psychological Services should be expanded to accommodate the officer selection duties and TPS members’ wellness needs, as described in this Report.

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