Advocates find a ‘chasm’ in Toronto police mental health training
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They said it many times, in different ways: “I feared for my life.”
The Toronto Police officers who shot and killed three people, all suffering from mental illness and carrying sharp weapons, testified in a coroner’s inquest that in the split seconds before they fired, they thought they were about to die.
Michael Eligon, Sylvia Klibingaitis and Reyal Jardine-Douglas all lost their lives to police bullets. The three officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing, and video footage of the separate incidents shows, to varying degrees, the danger they faced.
An inquest into their deaths produced some 74 recommendations, among them that police must stop yelling the so-called “police challenge” — “Drop the knife!” — and try another approach. But months after the inquest closed, top police brass still say the “police challenge” is a tried-and-true method.
Police are trained to speak calmly and to offer to help, but once someone advances with a weapon, officers are taught to react to behaviour rather than emotional state.
Advocates and family members of those killed say there is a “chasm” in police training between the response to mentally ill people carrying weapons and those who are unarmed.
“That is the area that has caused these tragedies, and it is still being missed,” said a frustrated Anita Wasowicz, Klibingaitis’s sister. “The police are saying they can’t change because there’s lack of evidence, and people in crisis are unpredictable.
“But it’s a paradox, because they are providing a predictable training method to all the police, so that there is a higher chance we will have more tragedies.”
According to Toronto Police data obtained by Torstar News Service, as few as four officers were harmed by knives in the past five years, while 18 people holding “edged weapons” were shot by police, 10 of whom died.
It is not known how badly the officers were injured, apart from Const. Jeff Blair, who was stabbed in the neck in 2012 during a traffic stop and survived. One Toronto Police officer has been killed by a knife — in 1998..
Peter Rosenthal, a civil rights lawyer who represented Eligon’s family, has said officers are trained to be too fearful of knives. They may be pulling the trigger in cases where another approach might have worked.
“Of course knives can be dangerous, and we want officers to be safe,” said Rosenthal. “On the other hand, it doesn’t mean you should shoot unless you really have to, and that’s where the problem comes in.”
Eligon, 29, was shot and killed on Feb. 3, 2012, after escaping from the psychiatric ward at Toronto East General Hospital and stealing two pairs of scissors. Police dashboard video shows Eligon, wearing only a hospital gown and black socks, shuffling toward a line of officers with their guns drawn as several yell, “Drop the weapon!”
As Eligon continues to advance, apparently not responding to the police command, Const. Louie Cerqua fires three shots, killing him.
Deputy chief Michael Federico said the three deaths examined in the inquest were situations where the person was advancing with a weapon. Had they been crouched in a corner, or behind a table, for example, officers might have responded differently.
“It’s not an automatic, ‘Possession of a knife constitutes a threat, draw your firearm.’ The officer is still expected to make an assessment about whether or not even the possession of a knife is in fact an imminent threat.”
He said officers have no way of knowing whether the person is wielding the weapon “as some kind of security blanket,” or whether they intend to harm. Police must stop the threat to public safety, but every scenario is different and officers are trained to continually assess and to try to make a connection, Federico said.
“Even if the officer introduces some other form of verbal communication, the intent is to stop the threat,” he said. For example: “Tell me your name. What’s your problem? I’m here to help, but you gotta put the knife down.”
Federico said the Toronto police were still considering the jury’s recommendation to try another approach when the “police challenge” isn’t working, but no one at the inquest presented a tested alternative. The clear command is intended to not only communicate to the individual, but also to the public and other officers, he said.
“The vast majority of cases where (the police challenge) gets used results in compliance. It’s a reliable, proven approach.”
Steve Summerville, a retired staff sergeant who trained officers and now runs a private security training company, said a knife attack is extremely difficult to control and officers do need to be hypervigilant around sharp weapons.
But he questioned Federico’s assertion that the police challenge is a reliable method, given the deaths of people with mental illness holding knives. He said the training curriculum at the Ontario Police College — which he said hasn’t changed in about 25 years — is long overdue for an update.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” he said. “If I’m coming at you with a sharp-edged weapon, and you believe you’re at risk, well, you are. But if you feel you have other options — to talk people down, to have other means to manage it — then you will.”
Psychiatric nurses in hospitals are sometimes confronted with weapons too, and being unarmed, must use other methods to calm and disarm people. Sharon Lawlor, a mental health nurse now on a Toronto Police Mobile Crisis Intervention Team in 55 Division, said she dealt with people wielding weapons many times in hospitals.
“When the patient escalates, you can call security, but all we have is our brains and our mouths, and we have to de-escalate,” she said. “I’m giving them eye contact and trying to build a rapport. I’m using my hands and telling them I understand what they’re going through. We don’t yell. We don’t get angry. It’s not personal.”
Most often when a person with a serious mental illness wields an object such as a knife or scissors, they are doing so for self-protection, Anita Szigeti, a lawyer with the Empowerment Council, a mental health advocacy group.
“My experience is they’re more afraid than they’re meaning to cause fear,” she said. “If you’re experiencing an emotional crisis that involves you being afraid of what’s happening around you, then it makes sense that you’ll arm yourself and have something with you to defend yourself.”
During 20-hour annual use-of-force training, Toronto Police officers listen to a three-hour lecture on mental health and addiction, including powerful video testimonies from people with mental illness. Officers are taught to be empathetic, to speak calmly, to give people dignity, to offer help.
They also take part in live scenarios, with actors playing emotionally disturbed people. In one scenario viewed by Torstar as part of the recent inquest, officers approached a man with schizophrenia calmly and asked him what was wrong. When the man picked up a two-by-four, the officers drew their guns and yelled, “Drop it!”
This month, the Mental Health Commission of Canada is expected to release a new framework for a national strategy on police interactions with people with mental illness. Among its 16 recommendations is better integrating use-of-force training with mental health training, emphasizing verbal de-escalation techniques and understanding of mental illness, even in situations that may require force, such as people wielding weapons.
“They have this training about mental illness over here, and this training about use-of-force over here, and what we’re saying is: Take the issues in regard to someone’s mental state and actually address that in your use-of-force training,” said Dorothy Cotton, psychologist and co-author of the report.
“You always want to be mindful in any interaction that you could be dealing with a person who really is not in a very good position to be understanding what you say right now, and to keep that in mind, and adjust your behaviour accordingly.”