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Crisis Response 7:09

A coroner’s inquest into three fatal police shootings in Toronto is raising questions about how officers in that city interact with people who are mentally ill.

In its exploration of the issue, CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning is looking into what other cities are doing to cut down on violent encounters between police and individuals with severe mental illness. 

On Wednesday morning, host Matt Galloway spoke to Terry McGurk, manager of Hamilton’s Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST), about how the organization, part of St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, helps police grapple with crisis situations involving people who are mentally ill.

“It’s really important that police understand mental illness,” said McGurk. “If officers have crisis intervention training, they can better respond to a crisis situation.” 

McGurk said COAST, which was founded in 1997, provides Hamilton police mental health training and fields phone calls from people who are in are in the midst of personal crises.

“If it’s not an immediate danger, then our team act goes out,” added McGurk. “We use our de-escalation techniques, really give that person undivided attention. We try not to be judgmental and we really just focus on the needs of that individual.”

'It’s my experience that in my community, that police work hard to try to understand the mental health situation.'—Terry McGurk, COAST

The organization also keeps track of individuals who have had mental health crises — information that can be extremely valuable to police in the midst of a confrontation. 

“It’s my experience that in my community, that police work hard to try to understand the mental health situation,” McGurk said.

His comments come two weeks after the provincial Special Investigations Unit cleared two Hamilton police officers of wrongdoing in the June 7 shooting of Steve Mesic.

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(Supplied)

The 45-year-old former steelworker died after a confrontation with police in a patch of tall grass near the Upper Wentworth exit of the Lincoln Alexander Parkway, right beside his own backyard. 

Earlier that morning, Mesic had checked himself out of voluntary mental health care program at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, and on at least two occasions, tried to jump into traffic.

In his Oct. 2 report, SIU director Ian Scott said the officers who shot Mesic were unaware of the Hamilton man’s unstable mental state.

That bit piece of information, Scott said, could have led to a different outcome.