Here is your diagnosis and your bullet proof vest: Wear it in poor gealth (by Guest Blogger Pat Capponi)

“The only way I could think to do this was to ask myself if, God forbid, there is another shooting of a person with mental illness, what would we say we’d left undone?”

That was what I posed to myself, police board chair Alok Mukherjee and Deputy Chief Mike Federico Tuesday, July 23, as we met at headquarters to discuss future directions of the board’s mental health sub-committee, which Alok and I co-chair.

I am not speaking for the sub-committee or the Service or Alok.

Dr. Mukherjee and I work well together, he’s knowledgeable, soft-spoken and tenacious, all important qualities when trying to manage and advise a service that at time resists, and at other times goes the extra mile when it comes to our input.

Together with members of our sub-committee we have looked at the training scenarios developed at the Police College, we have made extensive recommendations for a radically changed approach, along the lines of:

  • More concentration on de-escalation techniques, at least equal to the time spent on firearms training. Taking the necessary time on the way to the call to centre oneself, to make a plan of approach.
  • And once at the call, not rushing in before properly assessing the real degree of danger to the individual and the officers.
  • Just one officer should take the lead, not barking orders or making demands but speaking softly, reassuring the individual that the police are here to help him.
  • Ensuring that others, police and ambulance and fire, are moved back, so that chaos is reduced, and other conversations quieted.
  • Telling the person what is happening around them, explaining each step. If the person is not in trouble, telling them that. Never lie.
  • Don’t ask about diagnosis or medications that may cause the individual to escalate.
  • Stay in the moment.  Help the subject concentrate on how to best end the standoff.

We are told these suggestions are now integrated into the training.

We have worked with the College to create a video with police speaking to police about EDP’s, some of these officers are family members,  psychiatric survivors speak out  about their experience of being arrested, handcuffed, and taken to the hospital or jail.

They describe what escalated their emotions, or triggered responses, and what helped to calm them.  It’s a powerful, prejudice cracking video.  5,000 working police will see that a year.  It will be rolled out in September.

We are divided on Tasers, much like the wider community of mental health consumers.  When we haven’t really implemented de-escalation, it seems reaching for hi-voltage and sometimes lethal weapons is premature, and to many of us, reminiscent of the cattle prods used to control those we once labelled ‘mentally retarded’ in institutions.

We have worked with the MCIT (Mobile Crisis Intervention teams) and looked at the possibility of making them first responders, and heard that the nurses would not support that.

Insurance issues, we’re told, would prevent people with lived experience being hired as part of the teams.

We asked about non-lethal protections that could be standard in police cars, riot shields, and that padding officers put on during civil unrest, we are told that is a no go.

I am speaking as a psychiatric survivor who has endured yet another very public shooting of a young man who really didn’t have to die.

Of course, on first watching the video, Edmund Yu came to mind, his lonely death on a Toronto streetcar still reverberates in the community of psychiatric consumers.

But after repeated viewing, and reading the reports, I’ve come away with a very different take on this.  To me, it’s more like the RCMP rushing in to the airport in B.C., tackling, terrifying and tasing, ultimately killing, the clearly confused and frightened man.

With one caveat, the training received is good, strong, the trainers are decent men and women, the college has bent over backwards to learn and respond.  That caveat is two survivors on the committee (myself included) are not permitted to see what is being taught about the mentally ill by forensic psychiatry.  That is disturbing, and I wonder if what is being said is at odds with what we recommend, and why on earth we can’t be in the class to evaluate what’s being taught.

So with that exception, I have come to believe it’s not the training that is the issue, it’s the speed with which officers leave that training behind, ignore and go against what they’ve been taught.

That, in a quasi-military command and control outfit, is a stunning lack of discipline, accountability, and order.

Around the sub-committee table, I have asked about consequences when officers ignore their training.  I am still not clear on the response.  I have to wonder if disciplining those who act in contravention would be a de facto admission of culpability that the Service doesn’t want to own up to.

Lines of authority, supervision, none of that seemed evident in this tragic killing of an eighteen year old man, held hostage by fear, illness, and quite possibly wanting to die at the hands of police.

Chief Blair is at the top of the command structure. He needs to react strongly, firmly, and decisively.  He needs to show leadership, read the riot act to front line responders, and their supervisors’, that accountability and consequences will be the order of the day.

And one more thing, hard to talk about, but clearly necessary: are our police too risk averse?

Policing is a hard role, no question, but with training that’s adhered to, risk that is seen as acceptable and part of the job may have helped to bring these tragic and unnecessary killings to an end.

That is the direction we have yet to push for, that is what’s left undone.

Pat Capponi is lead facilitator of Voices from the Street/Women Speak Out, and the author of numerous non-fiction and fiction books.