Ejaz Choudry, a 62-year-old Mississauga, Ont., resident, was in crisis and reportedly suffering from a schizophrenic episode when police entered his home on Saturday and fatally shot him.
Police responded to Choudry’s residence for a wellness check after they reportedly received a call saying the father of four was suffering from a medical condition and not taking his medication.
Choudry’s family members said they asked police to allow them to try to calm him down but were told by officers to be patient. They also said the police were shouting at Choudry in English, which he didn’t understand.
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“None of us were able to go up there and say, ‘Uncle, you’re going to be OK,'” Hassan Choudhary, one of his nephews, told reporters.
Police said officers believed Choudry had access to weapons and entered his home after he stopped communicating, leading to an “interaction” where police fired a stun gun, plastic bullets and a gun. Video footage taken by a bystander shows police kicking down Choudry’s door and firing weapons.
The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Ontario’s police watchdog, is now investigating the circumstances surrounding the shooting.
Choudry’s death comes after 26-year-old D’Andre Campbell was fatally shot by police in his Brampton, Ont., home in April. Campbell, who was Black, lived with schizophrenia and called 911 as he was experiencing a mental health crisis.
In May, 29-year-old Black and Indigenous woman Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell 24 storeys from her apartment balcony to her death following an interaction with Toronto police.
Korchinski-Paquet’s mother, Claudette Beals-Clayton, called 911 because her daughter was in distress over a family conflict. Beals-Clayton said she pleaded with police to take Korchinski-Paquet to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) for mental health support and also said her daughter had an epileptic seizure.
The SIU is investigating both Campbell‘s and Korchinski-Paquet’s deaths.
“There’s a lot of fear and misinformation around individuals who are mentally ill,” said Dexter Voisin, dean of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto.
“Then when (mental illness) intersects with other types of stigmatized identities, like poverty … and race, you have a layering of intersecting identities that are stigmatized, (so) the calculation of risk is then going to be magnified.
“And if police officers feel that the calculation of risk is magnified, then they’re going to end up using more deadly responses.”
People living with mental illness often face violence
A common misconception is that people living with mental illness are inherently violent, but evidence does not support this belief. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
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“They’re more likely to be victims of bullying and they’re more likely targets,” Voisin said.
“They’re more likely to be stigmatized, to be ridiculed. And all those things in terms of emotional bullying very often lead to physical bullying and force.”
Most often, the majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses, CMHA adds.
“The risk of being murdered by somebody with serious mental illness is very low,” said Steve Lurie, executive director at CMHA.
Canadian research that looked at homicide offenders in Ontario from 1987 to 2012 found that only four per cent of murders were committed by people with a mental illness, Lurie said.
“The research and the history is that while serious criminal events can be perpetrated by people with mental illness, it’s a much lower rate than these things occurring in the general population,” Lurie said.
American research has yielded similar results: one U.S. review published in the medical journal Psychiatry found that when appropriately treated, people with mental illness do not pose any increased risk of violence over the general population.
“Violence may be more of an issue in patients diagnosed with personality disorders and substance dependence,” researchers wrote.
It’s important to note, however, that research shows that during the six to 10 weeks after someone is released from a psychiatric hospital, they are more vulnerable to both suicide and verbal or physical aggression, said Edward Taylor, a mental health clinician and associate professor of social work at the University of British Columbia.
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“What this says to me is that we need to be spending more money supporting people when they come out of the hospital because it’s stressful,” Taylor said.
“Once you’re out of the hospital, you’re back in that environment that you have to deal with: family, job, no job, shelter, no shelter, all those kinds of things.”
While stigma and shame can act as a barrier to treatment, Voisin said, adequate social supports are vital for people living with mental illness as well as their families. When people better understand mental illness and treatment is sought, there are more positive outcomes.
Police are not mental health experts
Police are not equipped to deal with mental illness the way trained social workers or mental health professionals are, Voisin said. When someone is in crisis and law enforcement is called, they respond in the way they know how.
“When you call police officers and you put them into situations that they’re not trained to deal with — they don’t have the social and the psychological knowledge — they’ll use the tools at hand,” Voisin explained.
“And then those tools will be guns, rubber bullets, handcuffs, pepper spray. They’ll use the type of policing equipment that they have, which will be deadly.”
Having mental health professionals who are educated in de-escalation techniques, substance abuse and homelessness are better suited for dealing with many issues to which police respond, Voisin said.
“I think in many cases that police would be relieved if they don’t have to deal with issues of mental illness and respond to issues around substance abuse because that’s not their training,” he said.
“It’s like asking a schoolteacher to be a neuroscientist; they’re trained for education and they are good at it, but surgery is not their forte.”
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The mere image of a police officer in a uniform can be distressing to someone experiencing mental illness, Taylor said, as it is a sign of authority and can escalate a situation.
“In most hospitals where social workers, nurses, doctors and other mental health people are going to de-escalate a situation, we take off our white coats,” he said.
“Part of that de-escalation is being able help the person identify what we’re trying to communicate and that we’re going to keep them safe, that they’re not going to be hurt.”
Lurie agreed that mental health professionals are better suited to dealing with people experiencing severe mental health issues over the police, but cops have become the default in communities across the country “because of the lack of investment in community-based crisis response by governments.”
He noted, however, that many police calls do not end violently.
“Toronto police get over 30,000 calls a year around mental health crisis, and most of them are resolved successfully,” he said.
“That said, when these (violent) things occur, it usually is because the situation was misread by the officer.”
Race plays a role
Race and anti-Black racism play a role in how police respond to people, research shows, including those in distress. Campbell’s family said they believe his race may have been a factor in his death.
A Black person is nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by Toronto police, a 2018 report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission found, and Black Canadians are more likely to experience inappropriate or unjustified searches during encounters and unnecessary charges or arrests.
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Indigenous Peoples also face discrimination within health-care systems and by police.
“My son was a fun-loving guy, but he had a mental issue,” Claudius Campbell, D’Andre’s father, told Global News, adding that his son had been in and out of the hospital for years.
“He called Peel police for help, and they came here and crucified him … two minutes in the house and two gunshots to his chest.”
Calls to defund the police have magnified as protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality continue across the world in response to the deaths of Black Americans, including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
Defunding the police means redirecting the budget for Canada’s police forces to other services that focus on social supports, including mental health.
“There’s no reason why we can’t start a service that is another emergency response service where people can call a number and have someone who is trained in de-escalation,” Sandy Hudson, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter Toronto and a law student at the University of California, Los Angeles, previously told Global News.
Voisin said that changing the way we respond to people experiencing mental health issues will better serve those in crisis.
“If we continue to do the same type of responses in terms of criminalizing individuals with mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness, we’ll continue to see the same types of unfortunate outcomes.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
Crisis Services Canada’s toll-free helpline provides 24-7 support at 1-833-456-4566.
Kids Help Phone operates a toll-free helpline at 1-800-668-6868 with 24-7 support for young people as well as the Crisis Text Line, which can be reached by texting HOME to 686868.
The toll-free Hope for Wellness helpline provides 24-7 support for Indigenous Peoples at 1-855-242-3310. Online chat services are also available.
Trans Lifeline operates a toll-free peer support hotline for trans and questioning people at 1-877-330-6366.
For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.
— With files from Global News’ Farah Nasser and the Canadian Press