Improved police training could prevent deaths of people with mental illness, experts say

Changing the culture of policing, as well as improving training for officers, could help prevent the deaths of people dealing with mental illness during altercations with police in Canada, experts say.

Officers protesting they're not social workers 'don't belong in 21st century policing'

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit is investigating the death of Abdirahman Abdi, 37, who witnesses say died after police beat him in front of his apartment building on Sunday while trying to arrest him. Abdi is believed to have had a mental illness. (CBC)

Changing the culture of policing, as well as improving training for officers, could help prevent the deaths of people dealing with mental illness during altercations with police in Canada, experts say. 

"The whole culture is a bit of an issue," said Dorothy Cotton, a psychologist who co-authored a Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) report in 2014 on interactions between police and people living with mental health problems.   

Police officers tend to get recognition for work perceived as "action", Cotton said, such as saving "a drowning child, or for that matter if you wrestle a gang-banger to the ground."

"But ... how much reward does a police officer get ... for talking someone down?"

Psychologist Dorothy Cotton says strategies that may normally work for police trying to arrest someone 'often backfire' if that person has a mental health issue. (Dorothy Cotton)

The death of Somali-Canadian Abdirahman Abdi after witnesses said police officers beat him in front of his Ottawa apartment building on Sunday, as well as Thursday's sentencing of Toronto Const. James Forcillo for the streetcar shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, have focused public attention on police altercations that end in tragedy. The question of mental health has been raised in both cases.

Strategies that police normally use for stopping or arresting people — like repeatedly shouting or chasing them  — "often backfire" if someone has a mental health issue, Cotton said.

"If you are so mixed up in your head that you're actually not even understanding what they're saying ... then saying it louder and repeating it over and over makes people more agitated."

Officers should 'slow down'

Terry Coleman, who worked as a police officer in Calgary for almost 25 years, then became chief of the police service in Moose Jaw, Sask., for another decade, said more emphasis on non-physical intervention and teaching a calmer approach is critical in police education and training.

Terry Coleman, who worked in policing for more than 35 years, says it's critical for police officers to practice de-escalation until it becomes a "habit," just as new recruits practice using a gun properly over and over again during firearms training. (Terry Coleman)

"Not every situation lends itself to having the opportunity to start some sort of conversation and try to de-escalate, but conversely, we shouldn't be doing anything that escalates the situation," said Coleman, who co-authored the mental health and policing report with Cotton.

British Columbia's crisis intervention and de-escalation (CID) training should be viewed as a model for police academies and police services across the country, Coleman said, largely because it trains officers to "slow down" and establish rapport with the people they encounter.

The B.C. government made the program mandatory for all police officers working in the province as a result of the Braidwood inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski, who died after RCMP officers stunned him repeatedly with a Taser at Vancouver International Airport in 2007. 

The course initially includes an online component, as well as an in-person session with people who have mental health issues and dealt with police, or their family members, said Steve Schnitzer, director of the police academy at the Justice Institute of British Columbia.   

"It's basically having empathy ... treating people with respect," Schnitzer said

CID education is then "interwoven" into the next nine months of basic training for new recruits, including during firearms and use of force instruction, he added. 

Practicing de-escalation until it becomes a "habit" is critical, Coleman said, so that police officers "can apply it when bad things happen" and they're in a "stressful situation." 

Sammy Yatim died after being shot repeatedly by Toronto Const. James Forcillo in 2013. Forcillo was sentenced Thursday to six years in prison.

"The attitude of the police officer and even the first words out of the police officer's mouth sets the tone for how this [situation] might and might not go," he said. 

And, although officers need to be cautious, Coleman recommends against pulling out a gun when approaching someone who might be agitated. 

"I never suggest that we jeopardize officer safety. Never. But if you walk up carefully, I mean, your partner can cover your back ... and just start to talk calmly to this person, even though they might be shouting and screaming ... try and engage them," he said. 

"We don't expect police officers to be able to say, 'well, this person is schizophrenic' or 'this person is bipolar' or whatever. We want ... police officers to understand that there is a problem."

Both Coleman and Cotton, the psychologist, said policing has changed over the years and they disagree with the notion that a police officer shouldn't have to play a role in people's mental well being. 

"You hear this, sometimes from the public, but certainly from some police officers that 'we're not bloody social workers,'" Coleman said. "Well, get over it my friends. You are." 

"If you've got a police officer with an attitude that we're not 'social workers,' then I'm afraid you don't belong in 21st century policing," he added. 

Problem bigger than training

But some critics aren't buying the argument that insufficient training is to blame if police use force that results in death. 

"I think that's nonsense," Desmond Cole, a Toronto activist and journalist who speaks out against racism in policing, told CBC Radio's Here and Now. "You don't need to train a police officer how to not beat someone almost to death."

"[You] don't need to train a police officer not to leave a man who has just been beaten lying face down in his own blood handcuffed," he added, referring to Abdi's death in Ottawa. 

Although Coleman emphasized he can't comment on that specific case, he agreed with Cole that "you shouldn't have to teach anybody not to beat somebody up."

"But at the same time it doesn't mean you shouldn't work with [police] so that they can do a better job and communicate better and resolve situations without getting to the point where somebody gets beaten up."


Nicole Ireland is a reporter with The Canadian Press


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