Police shooting in Eastern Passage raises calls for more mental health supports

Police shooting raises calls for more mental health supports
WATCH: Some of his neighbours of a man who was killed by police in Eastern Passage say he had known mental health issues, and an armed police response may not have been appropriate. Alicia Draus reports.

A 60-year-old man was shot by police in Eastern Passage on Thursday after officers responded to a weapons complaint.

According to RCMP, there was a man with a gun outside a home when they arrived on scene at Howard Avenue. Officers attempted to talk to the man but when he raised his gun towards him, they shot him.

He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Read more: Man dead after police-involved shooting in Eastern Passage

Neighbours have identified the man as Richard Wheeler, who they say lived with his mother.

One neighbour who asked not to be identified says he was well-known on the street and had some issues that had prompted police calls in the past.

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But Samantha Baker, another neighbour, says he was never considered to be a threat.

“Personally, in my experience with him, he was a great man. He was kind, friendly, always had a smile on his face,” she said.

Read more: N.S. police watchdog investigating after RCMP member accused of domestic assault

“He was struggling with his own demons but at least to this street, he was a very friendly man.”

She says on Thursday she was shocked when nearly a dozen officers armed with rifles showed up on their street.

“Everybody is shocked. It’s horrible how things played out; the end result is very unfortunate.”

Baker says she understands why police made some of the decisions they did, and doesn’t blame them for using their weapons when her neighbour aimed his gun at them, but she questions if the initial response with armed officers was appropriate, given Wheeler’s history with mental health.

“We need a better solution. We can’t come in guns a-blazing for somebody who is not mentally well.”

Nova Scotia does have a mobile crisis team that works with police to respond to mental health calls, but funding only allows for a few teams so they are not available to respond to every call, and they need to be contacted directly.

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“There is a unique 1-800 number that individuals call for mobile crisis support,” said Pamela Magee, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Nova Scotia.

“If you’re calling 911, it doesn’t automatically trigger mobile crisis support.”

But some countries do have systems that better align mental health supports with policing services, and Magee says it’s something that is being considered in Canada.

“In Canada, there is a dire need to look at how we take into consideration the mental health and well-being of individuals.”

Magee says that while police forces across the country, including in Nova Scotia, are working to train officers in mental health, it’s not realistic to expect police officers to be experts in the field.

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“It isn’t a role that they’ve entered a service area into with the expectations that they are an expert in,” she said.

Read more: Former N.B. ombudsman says police not equipped to deal with mental health issues

Magee says in dangerous situations it’s human nature to go into fight or flight mode and at that point, people aren’t always thinking logically and rationally and may react sooner than necessary.

“With the recent shooting in Portapique, you can understand why policing services are reacting first and not engaging,” she said.

“But with someone with mental health training and background, it can help prevent some of that and diffuse and de-escalate a situation that has the potential to end as this situation did.”

Magee says she doesn’t blame police for what happened in Eastern Passage and can’t say if things would have been different had a mental health expert been on the scene, but she says this is an opportunity to learn from what happened and make an effort to change the current system.

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“It isn’t a standard for the mobile crisis unit to be called but I think there should be circumstances where there is a minor assessment or appraisal of the mental health and well-being state of the individual at some level.”

Baker says she believes if there hadn’t been so many officers with rifles at the scene and had been more of an effort to talk her neighbour down, the end result could have been different.

But she also says it’s time for the province to invest more into mental health supports to help avoid situations like this altogether.

“We need more resources, we need more people and more time and energy put in place for these people,” she said.

As for her neighbour, she says she’ll remember him as a kind and caring man.

“The man I grew up seeing, and the man that would come by and sit and talk on the step with me, I will miss that man very much.”

Correction: This story originally identified the 60-year-old man shot as Howard Wheeler. In fact, his name was Richard Wheeler. Global News regrets the error.