July 27, 2013, Sammy Yatim was on a bus, alone, when he was shot by a member of the Toronto Police force, one bullet after another after another. At the same time, a police officer had entered the back of the bus, behind Sammy and used his Taser to zap Sammy, after he had already fallen to the ground following the barrage of bullets from a few feet away.
The commission investigating the event came out with a 300 plus page report Police Encounters with People in Crisis, with 84 recommendations. Along with providing training that includes de-escalation techniques and better communication skills, there was a suggestion to arm more police with Tasers.
Chief Blair said “Members of the Toronto Police Service are committed to preserving the lives of people in crisis if reasonably possible. Our goal is the safety of every citizen, and we aspire to preserve every life” (emphasis mine).
I suggest that the problem is far more difficult to fix than adding another weapon to the police arsenal. Without question this will require a shift in police thinking. As Frank Iacobucci stated when the report was released,
“You can do all the training you want but if culture is inconsistent with the training, then you’ve got a real problem.”
First and foremost we need to verify that every candidate for police forces around the country, who will carry a lethal weapon upon graduation, is properly questioned to ensure that they do not fear for their lives at the thought of confronting or being confronted by someone exhibiting signs and symptoms of a mental illness. What I find confounding is the number of people with mental illness who have died at the hands of police before the department thought the problem might be “police thinking.”
In the Toronto Police Service Mental Health Statement of Commitment one reads:
“Recognizing the increasing complexity of responding to persons in crisis and the role that we have been given in the Mental Health System, we remain committed to continuous self-improvement and innovation, in both policing and in mental health.”
There are reports after reports following the death of someone with a mental illness at the hand of the police. We are not the only city dealing with people with mental illnesses who become confrontational or frighten us by their actions or speech. There is plenty of rhetoric about making change and looking outside Toronto to find best practices. perhaps it is time to take a look at Pima County.
There is in Pima County, Tucson Arizona, a Mental Health Investigative Support Team associated with the Sherriff’s department that was established “to insure individuals with mental health challenges are receiving necessary treatment and support through a collaborative effort with Behavioral Health professionals, law enforcement, medical practitioners and the public.” The unit will also, and I think just as importantly, provide a mental health support network for officers.
The team came about as a response to the mass shooting outside the Safeway grocery store in Northwest Tucson, Arizona, January, 2011 by Jared Loughner who had targeted Gabrielle Giffords. Loughner was known to the police. He had a criminal record, and he also had mental health issues. The Tucson Police have come to realize that mentally ill people need help “not handcuffs.”
This team, two detectives, one Public Safety Support Specialist, three uniformed Deputies and one sergeant, all professionals with expertise in many types of investigation, come together when a crime that has been committed may involve a person with a mental illness. This team works with mental health organizations and law enforcement agencies in the area, to assist in bringing people in crisis into care without introducing more fear and anxiety into an already tense situation. The team also works with the courts to identify those whose actions are the result of an underlying mental illness and ensure they receive the appropriate treatment.
Captain Paul Sayre, head of the unit plans to have 20% of officers in every unit take specialized intervention training. It is hoped that this approach will help to prevent tragedies like the one 2011. He said:
“I think in an ideal world we would have been able to work with treatment providers to know that Jared Loughner presented a risk to the community, and get him into treatment. I think it’s very possible that event might not have happened.”
Now, Toronto. Now Ontario. Now Canada. Treat our citizens with mental illness with help, not handcuffs, and definitely not with lethal force.