New documentary explores lethal use of force on mentally ill

The names of people in mental crisis who've been shot by police in Ontario will be read aloud before a moment of silence is observed at Queen's Park today.

People in mental crisis shot by Ontario police mourned at Queen's Park vigil today

Michael MacIsaac was shot by police in Ajax, Ont., on the morning of Dec. 2, 2013. He died of his injuries in hospital a day later. He, along with other mentally ill people who've been shot by police, will be remembered at a vigil at Queen's Park today. (CBC)
The names of people in mental crisis who've been shot by police in Ontario will be read aloud before a moment of silence is observed at Queen's Park today.

Many of the victims' stories appear in a new documentary, Hold Your Fire, which is set to air on CBC Television on Oct. 22.

The film includes several GTA police shootings, including the shooting of Michael MacIsaac, a mentally ill man shot and killed by police officers in Durham Region,  and the high-profile shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a TTC streetcar two years back.

MacIsaac had left his Ajax, Ont., home naked on the morning of Dec. 2, 2013, which prompted calls to police. His family has said that he was delirious at the time of the shooting and had suffered from lifelong epilepsy following a childhood head injury.

After investigating the death of MacIsaac, the province's Special Investigations Unit determined there were "no reasonable grounds" to charge the Durham officer who shot him.

In the documentary, Michael's sister, Joanne, says she's convinced that her brother was not planning on hurting or killing the officers who confronted him.

"Michael needed help, he needed an ambulance, he needed medical care, he didn't need two bullets through his chest," Joanne said.

Hold Your Fire explores how officers in Britain respond to similar calls involving people in crisis but use de-escalation and avoid guns.

The film's researcher, Yvette Brend, says unlike the United States or Britain — no organization in Canada tracks the overall numbers of police shootings.  

Ontario's SIU, which investigates all incidents of death or serious injury where police are involved, has a record of police shooting deaths but won't reveal how many of them involved people in mental distress. Brend herself tracked 30 in the province over a 10-year period.

"That's a lot of lives lost that the person was in mental crisis and probably needed mental care," Brend said.

"It's crucial not to just keep a tally of the dead but to learn from every single one, especially when you your dealing with society's most vulnerable people," she added.

Last month, Toronto Police Deputy Chief Mike Federico said the force has implemented an overwhelming majority of recommendations issued as part of two reports that dealt with officers' use of lethal force in dealing with those in crisis.

Chief Mark Saunders said in the past, police used to "justify our actions because we could say, 'It's based on actions and behaviour, therefore we did this.' 

"We need to take it a step further now, we have to look at the intent behind the actions of the person in distress," Saunders said. "We have to be careful not to go on just behaviour alone. We have to look at the entire picture. Why are we here? What are the circumstances?"