Published On Thu Jan 19 2012
A day after the province’s police watchdog called the death of Charles McGillivary a “sad set of circumstances,” advocates for those with disabilities cautioned against seeing the case as an isolated tragedy. We must learn from it, they say.
“It’s a sad set of circumstances that’s similar, unfortunately, to other similar cases where the police push things with people who have some sort of mental health issues and it ends up in the death of that person,” said Toronto lawyer Peter Rosenthal.
McGillivary, who was brain damaged in a childhood car accident, died Aug. 1 after he was mistakenly arrested by two police officers. It is believed to be the 13th fatal confrontation between Toronto police and the mentally ill since 1988.
Following McGillivary’s death, mental health professionals and lawyers asked how equipped police are to handle encounters with the mentally ill or disabled.
Toronto police, who were unable to comment on the case while it was under investigation, say they are well aware of how important it is to train officers to deal with such issues. Spokesman Mark Pugash said the force is putting together packages on current training methods and resources for the media, which will be available in the near future.
“I think there are perhaps misconceptions that people have, so we want to ensure that we explain in the most complete terms how we train and equip our officers to deal with the situations they encounter,” said Pugash.
“We want to be open about this. We want people to be able to ask any questions. We want them to see what we do first hand.”
McGillivary, 45, was walking with his mother in the Christie Pits neighbourhood at the same time police were looking for another man with a similar description, according to the Special Investigations Unit which probed the case.
After attempting and failing to communicate with the man nicknamed “gentle giant,” police tackled him to the ground. Soon after being handcuffed, McGillivary turned purple and stopped breathing.
It was later discovered he had a pre-existing heart condition.
“In my view, no one could have reasonably foreseen the fatal consequence of this struggle,” said SIU director Ian Scott.
A date will now have to be set for a coroner’s inquest, as is mandatory in police custody deaths.
Anita Szigeti, a Toronto mental health lawyer, said “2011 was not a banner year in terms of police interaction with clients with serious mental health issues.”
In October, 52-year-old Sylvia Klibingaitis was shot dead outside her North York home after allegedly wielding a knife in front of police. Officers in her case were also cleared by the SIU.
“There’s no need for police interaction to end in death with the regularity that we have been seeing the last year” said Szigeti.
Trinity-Spadina MPP Rosario Marchese said McGillivary’s death “must not be ignored or considered acceptable.” He recommended an independent review of the adequacy of officer training in Ontario for identifying and apprehending people with disabilities, and minimum province-wide standards for police engaging in such interactions.