Toronto Police Need to Improve the Way They Deal With Mentally Ill People

After Toronto police fatally shot a mentally ill man last week, advocates for the mentally handicapped are understandably nervous. Suggestions by the city’s deputy police chief that provincial law be changed to let front-line officers use Tasers are even more concerning. Especially after the death of a confused man who died after being Tasered by an RCMP officer at Vancouver airport in 2007.

There has been a sad string of fatalities involving Toronto police and mentally ill people. In August, a man died after mistakenly being tackled by two police officers. In October, a North York woman with a history of mental illness was shot dead by police after brandishing a knife outside her home. Police officials point out that incidents like these have declined over the years: only 63 people were injured or killed after two million calls for service. But despite commitments from the very top of the force, tragedies keep happening.

“It sends tremors through the whole community,” says Pat Capponi, who co-chairs a Police Services Board mental health subcommittee. Police put on a demonstration last week to show how they are trained to communicate with those who are mentally ill and seem violent. Capponi watched with approval. “There was no yelling,” she said. This is all well and good in a mock situation, but on the street there is much more tension and more possibility of injury.

Toronto police have some officers and nurses specially trained to deal with people in crisis, but they work a limited number of hours and there aren’t enough of them. Some problems are beyond the control of police: psychiatric institutions no longer house as many people, and hospital wards can’t cope with extended stays, so more mentally ill are on the street. Police need to find ways to educate front-line officers who confront the mentally ill, beyond the two days of training they usually get.

Police have a tough job, but with the right training they can do better at controlling situations without resorting to lethal force. As Capponi notes: “Police have vests and shields and the ability to de-escalate if they take the time and don’t rush in.” The bottom line is that their motto — To serve and protect — should apply to all, regardless of disabilities.

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