Some Canadian police academies are using "inaccurate and outdated" material when training officers to work with people with mental health issues, says a report released by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
Released at the annual gathering of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police in Victoria, the report notes mental health professionals are not included in the development or delivery of curricula.
This "denies new officers the opportunity to become familiar their mental health counterparts," says the report.
Insufficient education is cited as the main reason police resort to using undue force rather than responding "appropriately and empathically” to cases involving people with mental health issues.
In the past seven years a number of high-profile police shooting deaths involving mentally ill individuals resulted in public outcry for change in policing practices.
David Boyd's son, Paul Boyd, was shot by Vancouver police in August 2007. His was suffering from bipolar disorder and paranoia.
Boyd supports the idea of further education and believes his son would be alive if police had been trained to defuse the situation as their first response. However, he's worried any training would eventually be overtaken by long-standing police culture.
"They'd be going into a police force with a lot of old guys telling them, 'Oh no, that's not the way you do it. You've got to be rough with these guys or they're not going to respect you.'"
He says the key is to rethink the recruitment process.
"You have to start from recruits who are capable of being trained in this approach," said Boyd. "Police should be recruited from university graduates rather than the current pool and be selected for qualities like empathy, compassion and so on."
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Saskatoon police Chief Clive Weighill, the association's newly elected president, said people with mental illness need the health system, not the justice system.
The report acknowledges that some advances have been made in the past seven years, including the increased attention to the need for police officers to be trained in de-escalation and crisis intervention tactics.
The success cases cited include the B.C. police force’s Crisis Intervention and De-escalation training, the Halifax Regional Police's Regional Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team and the Toronto Police Response to Emotionally Disturbed Persons training.
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Sixteen key recommendations are outlined in the report, mainly dealing with education and training of police officers to improve their interactions with people with mental health issues.
The recommendations include the implementation of provincial policing standards to ensure a unified level of training for all police personnel regardless of local jurisdiction.
More than 400 law enforcement leaders from civilian and military police are taking part in the gathering in Victoria.