Questions are mounting about police officers’ roles in responding to mental health calls following the recent deaths of distressed people whose families sought help.
Most recently, a 62-year-old man reportedly experiencing a schizophrenic episode in Mississauga, Ont. was shot by police who responded to a call from his family for assistance. Earlier this month, two Indigenous people known to have mental health challenges were killed in interactions with police.
And in late May, a Toronto woman fell from her balcony while police were on scene after receiving a call from her family that she was in mental distress.
Police departments across Canada get thousands or tens of thousands of calls related to mental health concerns and crises every year.
But with recent deaths and public outcry, experts say change is needed.
Police protocols for wellness checks
The term ‘wellness check’ is associated generally with situations when police officers check in on someone whose mental health or well-being are of concern.
But there’s no standard for wellness check protocols across Canada — those are determined by individual police services, according to Jennifer Lavoie, an associate professor of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University, who specializes in investigating how police respond to mental health crises.
Typically, the call to police is made by someone close to the individual. When they arrive, officers might assess the person’s mental health and hygiene, ask about their day, and take a peek inside the house, explained Lavoie.
But once the door opens, “there can be any situation in front of the officers,” she said.
Not all police services have mobile crisis teams that include a specially-trained officer and a mental health professional — like a psychiatric nurse — that can be deployed on these calls. Even if they do, they’re often not available, Lavoie noted.
A spokesperson for Peel police, involved in the recent Mississauga death, said it received roughly between 5,000 and 6,300 calls for mental health assistance annually over the past four years.
In an email statement, Const. Danny Marttini said typically two officers are assigned to those calls, but police might send a mobile crisis team.
“Officers attending situations with a person in crisis, are trained to focused on de-escalation, building rapport and gaining trust, to come to a positive resolution,” the statement read.
A spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service — which responds to about 30,000 such calls every year — said the number of officers dispatched for mental health calls also varies and the service may also send one of it’s mobile crisis teams.
On Tuesday, the RCMP commissioner told a House of Commons committee that the force responds to approximately 10,000 calls regarding mental health crises every month, and those calls are “growing exponentially.”
Ultimately, if a call deteriorates into a life-threatening situation for the officer, police are “legally entitled to use whatever force is necessary to preserve their own life,” said Greg Brown, a 30-year veteran of the Ottawa Police Service and sociology professor at Carleton University.
But officers are “very reluctant” to do that, Brown said.
Why are wellness checks ending violently?
Yet, over the last three months in Canada, outrage has grown after six people — all them racialized and struggling with mental health — died when police were called to check on them or to respond to an incident: D’Andre Campbell, Caleb Tubila Njoko, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi, and Ejaz Choudry.
A 2018 CBC News investigation into police-involved fatalities in Canada between 2000 and 2017 found that the number was rising and that 42 per cent of the people who died in those circumstances in that time period were mentally distressed.
“The public is asking for the police to do better,” Lavoie said.
An overlap of stigmas attached to mental illness, poverty and race may exacerbate critical situations involving police, said Dexter Voisin, dean of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto.
“There’s a lot of fear and misinformation around individuals who are mentally ill. And then when it intersects with other types of stigmatized identities … what do you expect? The calculation of risk is then going to be magnified,” Voisin told Global News.
“And then if police officers feel that the calculation of risk is magnified, then they’re going to end up using more deadly responses.”
Lavoie and Brown agreed that a major issue is that officers aren’t trained well enough to handle complex mental health calls or crises.
Over the last decade, there’s been an “uptick” in the amount of mental health training police receive, but it’s “completely unsatisfactory” for the standards “the public is demanding,” Brown argued.
Officers should be put through “a ton of simulation exercises” every year, Brown said, noting that police training is moving towards teaching officers to take their time when containing a situation.
“Why are we rushing into this place with an armed person who is by themselves and forcing something to happen that might not happen if we waited with some more patience?” Brown said.
Lavoie added that police training is focused on use-of-force and enforcement, and more training on de-escalation and mental health crises is needed. She said training should also focus on building better interpersonal and communication skills and having officers address biases.
There also needs to be better recognition and “cultural awareness” of the history of how racialized and Indigenous communities have been policed, Lavoie said.
Interactions between police officers and distressed individuals can turn poorly for “a host of reasons,” Lavoie explained. The person having an episode may have paranoid thoughts or feel threatened. When it’s the latter, they might arm themselves with a weapon for protection or for other reasons, she said.
The mere presence of a police officer can be frightening and can result in unpredictable behaviour, especially if the officer is “the last person that individual wants to see,” Lavoie added.
Apart from training, Brown said he’d also like to see more highly-trained, mental health professionals out in the field with officers. Lavoie also expressed support for more mobile crisis teams, saying families’ interactions with them “tend to go much more positively.”
A lack of access to mental health services and community-based supports is also contributing to why police find themselves responding to acute mental health calls, according to Lavoie.
More people are living at home with mental illness today than there were in the past, but the number of community-based services hasn’t increased in tandem, she argued.
“It’s a system that is at a breaking point because those services just aren’t in place,” Lavoie said.
Police shouldn’t be first responders for mental health: experts
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) on Tuesday called for a “new direction in crisis care” altogether.
In a statement, the mental health hospital and research centre argued: “Police should not be the first responders when people are in crisis in the community.”
“At the end of the day, if you’ve got a mental health problem, I think it would be ideal that a mental health worker be involved in seeing you, in the same way that if you have physical health problems, somebody who understands physical health problems comes to your door,” said CAMH psychiatrist David Gratzer.
Saadia Sediqzadah, a psychiatry resident at the University of Toronto, argued that having armed police officers respond to mental health calls sends the message that having a mental illness or an episode is a crime.
“I don’t think that we can have a meaningful discussion on de-stigmatizing mental illness if our response to mental health crises is the police,” she said.
An “entirely difference service” should be tasked with responding to mental health calls, Sediqzadah argued, saying she’s worked in hospitals where skilled professionals regularly de-escalate situations when people in mental distress show up with a weapon.
“No one in the emergency department — no doctor, no nurse, no security guard — nobody has a gun, and yet we are able to de-escalate these situations on the daily with each other’s support,” she said.
“It is possible.”
-With files from Global News’ Andrew Russell, Laura Hensley, Ryan Rocca, Mark Carcasole and the Canadian Press