‘We’re not mental health professionals’: Even police call for change in handling wellness checks

For the family of Ejaz Choudry, a 62-year-old Mississauga, Ont. man, shot by police, every day without their loved one is a painful reminder of the tragic way he died.

“My uncle was harmless, he could barely take three, four steps. After his third or fourth step he’d have to sit down because he couldn’t breathe,” said his nephew, Hassan Choudry, hours after the man’s death.

In June, a family member called a non-emergency line looking for help for Choudry. He lived with schizophrenia and his family worried he had not been taking his medication. Instead of receiving help, Choudry was shot and killed.

Ontario’s police watchdog is carrying out its own investigation of the incident and the actions of the officers from Peel Regional Police.

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A different role for police

A recent spate of Canadians dying during so-called mental health “wellness checks” by police is once again raising questions about who is best equipped to respond to mental health crises.

The family of Chantel Moore is also demanding to know why she ended up dead, also in June, after police visited her home for a wellness check in Edmundston, N.B. That city’s police force has said Moore was holding a knife, and making threats.

Her family is shocked, as is Canada’s Indigenous Services Minister, Marc Miller.

“I don’t understand how someone dies during a wellness check, frankly. Along with many Canadians, Indigenous peoples living in Canada, politicians, I’m pissed, I’m outraged,” Miller said following the shooting.

In Peel Region west of Toronto, where Choudry was killed, the police chief is acknowledging that armed officers are not best equipped to deal with mental health calls. “We’re not mental health professionals,” Peel Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah told Global News’ The New Reality.

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In most jurisdictions, however, police officers are still the default first responders for a variety of calls, including mental health crises. “There’s a space in there for somebody other than a uniform,” says Duraiappah.

Re-thinking mental health crisis responses

Since 1989, the Gerstein Centre in Toronto has been on the front lines of helping people living with mental health challenges. Its model emphasizes a non-confrontational and non-police response to mental health crises.

Susan Davis, the executive director of the organization, says it’s critically important to listen and to allow people struggling with a mental health crisis to come up with their own solutions.

“What you want to do is be able to help the person to de-escalate and to do that you really need, first of all, for them to feel some level of safety. And often the way we end up creating that is by spending time really listening,” she says.

Click to play video: 'Mental health advocates say police shouldn’t always be the first to respond to crisis calls'
Mental health advocates say police shouldn’t always be the first to respond to crisis calls

It isn’t always helpful, she and other advocates say, when an armed officer arrives at the door of someone going through a moment of crisis.

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“It’s a very scary time,” says Lesia Cole, a Toronto resident who used the Gerstein Centre’s services more than 10 years ago, and remains in touch with its support workers. “I prefer crisis workers to come out and talk with me compared to police.”

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‘De-tasking’ the police

Calls for “defunding the police” have grown this year, especially following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis in May.

“I don’t ascribe to this notion of defunding police,” says Dexter Voisin, the dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Social Work. “We need people to actually uphold, to serve and to protect. But we also need individuals who are adequately trained to respond to issues of homelessness, to issues of substance abuse, to issues of mental distress.”

In some regions, police departments are already working with mobile crisis response teams. In Peel Region, a partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association is in place to dispatch a mobile crisis response team – an officer and a crisis worker – to some calls.

The problem is there aren’t enough teams available – just two cars at a time, during peak periods. Duraiappah says his two mobile response teams are able to respond to less than a third of the 7,000 calls that are classified as mental health-related each year.

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“I think if there’s something that police can do in terms of an area of improvement,” says David Smith, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s director for Peel Region, “it’s involving us more in those mental health calls.” He adds that he is seeing a growing willingness by police to “hand over that responsibility to health care.”

U.S. cities changing how they respond

Changes to the way policing has traditionally intersected with mental health response have been slow to happen, especially in Canada, according to advocates for reform.

In Toronto, which has Canada’s largest police force, the Reach Out Response Network is working with the city to advocate for a non-police response system to mental health calls.

Reach Out points to a model employed in Eugene, Ore., where a crisis intervention team, known as CAHOOTS, can be dispatched, where appropriate, through the 911 system, and without police involvement.

“They respond to mental health crises, they do welfare checks, they respond to intoxicated persons,” says Rachel Bromberg, who co-founded the Reach Out Response Network.

Click to play video: 'Chantel Moore’s family demands justice & public inquiry'
Chantel Moore’s family demands justice & public inquiry

She says it’s a widespread misconception that people suffering from mental health problems are violent.

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“There is a stigma,” Bromberg says. “There is an association that people have in their minds between mental health crisis calls and violence. But in the real world, it just doesn’t exist.”

CAHOOTS, which is run by the White Bird Clinic in Eugene, says of the 24,000 calls it received last year, just 150 of them required police backup.

Challenging the traditional view of policing is also happening beyond Eugene, including in some large centres. New York City recently launched a pilot program to dispatch crisis workers to some emergency calls. A similar program is in place in Denver, another large metropolitan area.

Social inequality, systemic racism increase the risk

For many advocates, addressing systemic racism and social inequity is an important factor in changing the way we handle mental health calls.

“Inequity is really a huge factor for so many people,” says Susan Davis at the Gerstein Centre.

Davis believes the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing social inequities, including racism, poverty and homelessness. She says people affected by any or all of those factors are more likely to experience a crisis and are also more likely to benefit from a health-focused, non-confrontational response from clinical experts and peer support workers, rather than police.

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“I think a big difference is the trust that you have in the system,” says Asante Haughton who, along with Rachel Bromberg, co-founded the Reach Out Response Network.

“When you are a racialized person, you have a variety of very justifiable reasons as to why you don’t have trust in the system. And that’s probably because you’ve been harmed by the system in some way. Not just that the system hasn’t served you, but [that] you’ve been harmed by it.”
Click to play video: 'RCMP criticized for taking too long to ask for witnesses to disturbing wellness check'
RCMP criticized for taking too long to ask for witnesses to disturbing wellness check

In Canada, most mental health crisis response units are still pairing armed officers with trained crisis workers. Police leaders and even some mental health advocates say, there is a very good reason for that.

For instance, there are plenty of instances, according to Duraiappah, where officers respond to calls about a noise complaint or some other disturbance, only to find that “there’s a mental health element to it.”

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But, he adds, “finally, there’s broad attention to the fact that we’ve been seen as the panacea for every social ill, whether it be homelessness, addiction, housing, youth-related issues.”

When it comes to mental health crises, he says bluntly, “we’re the wrong entity in the first place.”

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