Social justice advocate says police not sufficiently equipped for mental distress calls

Chantel Moore is shown in this undated photo posted on a GoFundMe memorial page, Support for family of Chantel Moore. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, GoFundMe

Two tragedies in recent weeks, both ending in the death of young Canadian women, have a mental health advocate calling for fewer police interactions in distress calls and more involvement from other trained professionals.

Regis Korchinski-Paquet, in Toronto, and, Chantel Moore, in Edmundston, New Brunswick died, on May 27 and June 4 respectively. In both cases, police were called in to check on their state of mind, during a time of distress. Korchinski-Paquet, 29, fell 24 storeys from an apartment balcony. Police say Moore, 26, was shot and killed by an officer — she had allegedly threatened him with a knife.

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Social justice advocate Robert Wright, in Halifax, says the tragedies underscore the need for mental health professionals to respond to those calls, instead of police.

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“When we deploy police to do work that is not — strictly speaking — police kind of work, we are creating the conditions for a problem.”

READ MORE: Chantel Moore’s death prompts renewed calls for New Brunswick police watchdog

The Canadian Police Association, which represents 60,000 police members across Canada, would not say whether it supports such a shift.  “We support better capacity to manage mental health issues,” says Tom Stamatakis, the group’s president. “Police have been thrust into that role over quite a number of years now, as governments have made decisions to de-institutionalize people suffering from mental health issues.”

Stamatakis says in the past 10 years, officers have received improved training on awareness of mental illness and in de-escalating volatile situations.

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“There’s still a long way to go, because we still have many issues with respect to sharing of information with local health authorities. There are lots of issues still around privacy, particularly around mental health and other health issues.”

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Halifax Regional Police (HRP), who’ve faced controversy over “police checks” that were found to disproportionately target the Black community, say they “employ a multi-faceted approach” to incidents involving people with mental health issues. HRP spokesperson Const. John McLeod says that includes all booking officers and more than 200 officers trained in crisis intervention — in-house training developed and delivered by a mental health mobile crisis team– as well as conflict intervention training, and online video training for all officers in identifying a psychiatric emergency.

“We recognize there is always room to do more and we are continuing to work with the Health Authority, Emergency Health Services, and emergency room staff in this area,” McLeod said.

READ MORE: Indigenous families say deaths of their loved ones in police custody part of pattern

Stamatakis insists police generally do a good job of conducting “wellness checks” and other calls related to mental health.  He admits the presence of a uniformed police officer can sometimes backfire.

“You will have people showing up to deal with these issues, particularly if we know the person is in a mental health crisis, not wearing a uniform. All of our outreach teams that specifically focus on mental health in the community don’t wear a uniform.”

In the cases of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto, and Chantel Moore in Edmundston, however, attending officers were in uniform.

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Wright, a leading social justice advocate, says a system that relies on armed, uniformed authority figures cannot succeed.

“The first thing that they’re gonna have to de-escalate is the agitation that is caused by their presence.”

Wright adds that better funding for community outreach groups that specialize in health services would prevent many tragedies before people at risk encounter the police.

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