Toronto

What if instead of yelling 'Drop your weapon,' police asked 'How can I help?'

Jury to unveil recommendations following Ontario coroner’s inquest that heard from mental health expert

Jennifer Chambers

Jennifer Chambers, executive director of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health-funded Empowerment Council, has made her case at more than 10 police inquests, including that of 45-year-old Andrew Loku this month. When police see somebody holding something that may be threatening, she would like to see them first ask: 'What's going on? Can I help you? Is there something we can do? Let's talk.' (CBC)

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After a 911 call for unknown trouble, officers arrive and find a man in distress, wielding some kind of object.

Three words, known to those in law enforcement as the "police challenge," pierce the morning air. "Drop your weapon!"

Seconds later, gunshots.

It's an all-too-familiar scenario at coroner's inquests in Canada, according to some mental health experts. This week, a jury in Ontario is expected to reveal a list of recommendations that are supposed to give police the tools to respond effectively to civilians in crisis. 

The recommendations come after a weeks-long inquest into the fatal police shooting of Michael MacIsaac, a man who, four years ago, ran naked through a suburban Ajax neighbourhood on a cold December morning following a physical confrontation involving his wife and sister at their home.

Const. Brian Taylor, an 18-year police veteran, opened fire some 12 seconds after stepping out of his vehicle to confront MacIsaac, who was by that time allegedly holding a metal leg from an outdoor table set. Taylor testified he feared MacIsaac would drive the rod into his head.

Common themes among inquests

According to his family, MacIsaac was in significant psychological distress, possibly stemming from an epilepsy-related episode earlier that day.

Jennifer Chambers, one of 18 witnesses who testified at the inquest, is executive director of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health-funded Empowerment Council. The organization has long advocated for improved training for frontline officers who may encounter many different shades of mental illness on the job. 

Michael MacIsaac running

A photo of Michael MacIsaac was snapped by a witness the morning of Dec. 2, 2013. MacIsaac was shot twice by a Durham constable after officers responded to the 47-year-old running in the nude through an Ajax neighbourhood. (Supplied by MacIsaac family)

Chambers has made her case at more than 10 different police shooting inquests, including the one for 45-year-old Andrew Loku earlier this month, and says she's noticed some common themes.

"The police see somebody holding something they find threatening and they give the police challenge … When the person doesn't drop it, they just keep yelling," Chambers told CBC Toronto ahead of the release of the jury's recommendations.

Instead, she would like to see officers first ask: "What's going on? Can I help you? Is there something we can do? Let's talk."

Disbelief in de-escalation

Calls for de-escalation and crisis training for first responders aren't new.

Last year, provincial ombudsman Paul Dubé issued a scathing review of police training in Ontario, saying police get plenty of instruction on how to use their guns, but not enough on how to use their mouths.

Sammy Yatim mother

Sahar Bahadi, the mother of Sammy Yatim - who was shot and killed by Toronto police aboard a street car in July 2013 - lent her support to the MacIsaac family during the inquest. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

That comment was based largely on his examination of 19 fatal police shootings during the period after the death of Toronto teenager Sammy Yatim in the summer of 2013 until the release of his report. 

At the time, Dubé pointed out, there were already well over 100 coroner's jury recommendations calling for improved police training. That's in addition to some 84 recommendations by Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci that included the creation of a police and mental-health oversight body, and a requirement that new constables complete a mental health first aid course.

But Chambers contends that despite recent scrutiny, many officers don't seem to trust that people can indeed be de-escalated.

Part of the reason, Chambers argues, is a belief that people suffering a mental episode are inconsolable or beyond help.

"The one thing we still hear from police is the 'excited delirium' thesis, which really has very little basis, but they believe in it. They believe people have superhuman strength if they're in an altered mental state."

Tasers not the answer, says MacIsaac's sister

Another one of her informal recommendations: equip police officers with non-lethal means of force, including shields and helmets, and gather objective data on police behaviour in the field through the use of body cameras. 

"If all they have available to themselves is a gun, then a gun is going to be what gets used," Chambers said. "But if you look at jurisdictions, like the U.K., who don't have guns, they have to do other things like use shields."

Michael MacIsaac's wedding photo

Michael and Marianne MacIsaac on their wedding day. (Supplied by MacIsaac family)

That recommendation also isn't new. It was one of 39 read aloud at Loku's inquest, which also focused heavily on training to counter anti-black racism and the collection of race-based data.

That inquest also called for all field officers to be equipped with Tasers. While the proposal surfaces often in public reviews of police conduct, some observers — including Chambers — as well as MacIsaac's sister, Joanne MacIsaac, don't see it an effective way to reduce police violence. 

"I know additional Taser use comes out in all these inquests. I don't think that's the answer," MacIsaac said to the jury during her testimony, explaining that if her brother was in the throes of epileptic seizure, electric currents were already moving through his body.

Training not sufficient, says officer 

Key among Chambers's own recommendations are calls for two different kinds of crisis teams to be funded: a community-based version for anyone in crisis to call, and another that responds when police are called.

Each year, Toronto police respond to more than 23,000 mental health-related calls, 8,000 of which end with the individual in crisis taken to hospital under the Mental Health Act.

Last year, Toronto's Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams (MCITs) were involved in almost 30 per cent of those calls. But whereas the teams operate from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET every day, the jury in Loku's death recommended they be available round the clock and called on the province to provide added funding to nurses to make that happen.

Const. Brian Taylor

Const. Brian Taylor, left, testified about the moments leading up to his decision to shoot MacIsaac in 2013. MacIsaac died from his injuries. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

But as long as police are the ones responding, Chambers says mental health training for officers is critical.

Under cross-examination last week, the Durham constable who arrived first at the scene where MacIsaac was shot confirmed he had just one week of mental health training about 10 years before the incident. That training with Durham police consisted of a program organized through various mental health organizations.

Questioned by one of the five jurors on the inquest as to whether he felt the training sufficient, Const. Mark Brown responded: "No."

Chambers says that for de-escalation training to be effective, it needs a human face. By involving individuals who have survived mental health crises themselves, she says, police may better relate to those they encounter.

"If they see that this person might have had a huge crisis at one point in their life and now here they are talking calmly to you about their lives, maybe that would also allow them to feel more of a  human connection," she said.

"You can forget training but you can't unmeet a person."

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