Recent deaths prompt questions about police wellness checks
At least 4 people have died during police wellness checks in Canada since April
The deaths of multiple people during police wellness checks in recent months in Canada has raised questions about law enforcement's ability to handle mental health crises, especially among people of colour.
"We need to rethink who does wellness checks, but we also need to understand why those interactions play out the way that they do," said Ingrid Waldron, an associate professor at Dalhousie University's School of Nursing whose research focuses on health outcomes for Black and Indigenous communities.
On June 4, Edmundston Police Force officers fatally shot 26-year-old Chantel Moore, an Indigenous woman originally from B.C., after they were called to conduct a wellness check. She was the first of two Indigenous people in New Brunswick to die at the hands of police in a span of eight days.
The week before Moore's death, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black-Indigenous woman living in Toronto with Nova Scotia roots, died after falling from a high-rise balcony after her family called the police for help.
"What should have been just a general kind of wellness check ended up in two women dying," said Waldron.
Korchinski-Paquet and Moore's deaths came during a time of ongoing protests against police brutality and racism across the U.S. and Canada.
Earlier in the spring, D'Andre Campbell, a 26-year-old Black man with schizophrenia, was shot dead on April 6 in Brampton, Ont., after calling Peel Regional Police himself for help.
And on Saturday, 62-year-old Ejaz Ahmed Choudry was shot and killed by police in Mississauga, Ont., during a wellness check. He had schizophrenia.
A CBC News analysis of 461 police deaths in Canada between 2000 and 2017 revealed 70 per cent of people who died during encounters with police suffered from mental health or substance abuse problems. It also found Black and Indigenous people were over-represented in these deaths.
'A very specialized skill'
Mental illness is complicated, and people who work with those struggling with mental health typically have years of education and training.
Waldron believes police officers are not equipped to handle the wide and complex range of mental health issues that exist.
"That's a very specialized skill ... dealing with individuals who have mental health issues and being able to interact with them in a non-aggressive way," she said. "I think police may engage in these interactions expecting something to go wrong, and their behaviour is shaped by that expectation."
Waldron said people tend to perceive Black and Indigenous people as being more dangerous or aggressive. If they struggle with mental health issues, that negative perception can be amplified.
She noted that schizophrenia, which can be perceived as a "particularly pathological, deviant" illness, is more likely to be diagnosed in Black people.
In dealings with police, she said, the problem is made worse because there is a lack of trust in law enforcement within Black and Indigenous communities.
"There's a dynamic happening: expectations that policemen are going to be aggressive or violent with them, and then policemen often seeing Black and Indigenous bodies as particularly dangerous," she said.
"When I think about these cases, it's no wonder that the interactions between police and Black and Indigenous people often end tragically, because I think that dynamic comes into play in very, very subtle ways."
Bigger than the police
A sociologist and policing expert says people shouldn't solely place the blame of these tragedies on the police.
"We do live in this society in which there is institutional racism," said Adrienne Peters, an assistant professor of sociology and a liaison and co-coordinator for police studies at Memorial University in Newfoundland.
"[Police are] simply an institution within this working system mostly governed by the priorities and the mandate of government and what they've set forth for them."
Advocates have been floating potential ways to begin shifting the responsibility of wellness checks away from police and toward other professionals like social workers and mental health experts.
While Peters said the push to defund the police has "its strengths and limitations," it has helped open up a conversation.
"We're recognizing we need to start funding these social services so that it doesn't have to be police being the default response to mental health crises when they are unfolding," she said.
According to numbers provided by Nova Scotia RCMP, officers responded to 3,671 calls for wellness checks since June 2018 — or about five per day — outside the Halifax Regional Municipality. The number of calls were not available for HRM because they use a different coding system.
Nova Scotia RCMP declined comment about the training officers receive. The national force turned down an interview request, but instead sent a statement.
Spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval said the RCMP uses a framework called the incident management intervention model to assess and manage risk in encounters with the public. She said all officers also receive mandatory crisis intervention and de-escalation training, which includes a module on some major mental health disorders and their observable behaviours.
There are also a number of both mandatory and non-mandatory courses on suicide prevention and intervention skills, Indigenous history, trauma-informed approaches and "community conflict management."
She added the RCMP has developed and will soon launch a cultural awareness and humility course and a character-based leadership program.
"We are always taking steps to strengthen our training and improve our work in an ever-changing environment, as we continue to work with our communities," Duval wrote.
'A larger conversation'
Meanwhile, Halifax Regional Police spokesperson Const. John MacLeod said all booking officers and more than 200 officers have been trained in a weeklong crisis intervention course about dealing with individuals with mental health issues, how to recognize different mental health conditions and how to approach them.
He said officers also work with the Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team and receive conflict intervention training involving de-escalation techniques and bias-free policing. The frequency of mental health training depends on the level of training the officer already has, he said.
MacLeod said calls for wellness checks are "frequent" and each call is unique.
"For some folks, they just need some time on their own to work through their own issues, and they're capable to do that," he said. "Or it may be to a level where someone has indicated to us that someone is in serious crisis."
He said in a case where someone may harm themselves, police are mandated by the province to take them to a mental health-care professional.
"Generally, we can do that very successfully with conversation," said MacLeod. "But there are times when force is required, depending on circumstances."
MacLeod said HRP officers use force less than one per cent of the time in all police interactions.
When asked what he thought of recent calls to "defund the police" and instead reallocate funding toward social programs and mental health services, MacLeod said it wasn't his place to speak to that.
"That's certainly a larger conversation to have," he said. "We certainly do our best. We know we're one small piece of a solution in regards to those that are having a mental health crisis."
What's the solution?
Waldron, the expert on Black and Indigenous health, believes the solution lies in preventing these calls from coming in in the first place: by providing better funding for social services and mental health resources — especially in Black and Indigenous communities, where they tend to be underutilized.
"Their illness may be at an extreme stage, so by the time a police officer comes around to do a wellness check, they're dealing with somebody who's perhaps never seen a counsellor," she said.
There are a number of reasons mental health services are underutilized in Black and Indigenous communities, including a lack of access.
"African Nova Scotians and Indigenous communities often have to travel to find mental health services," Waldron said.
"They're not, in general, culturally competent. They're not staffed by people who look like members of these communities."
In Peters's opinion, people "want quick fixes and quick explanations," and that just isn't possible for a problem of this scope.
"What I think is really important right now is fewer people talking and more people listening ... and just taking small steps collaboratively to start to address these issues," she said.
"From our educational systems, our health-care systems, our familial systems, from all systems, not just the ultimate end point — which is, unfortunately, a criminal justice system where we see the police getting involved and then being blamed for a lot of this."
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