Family of man killed by police 'dumbfounded' officers don't get mandatory mental health training

A legal advocacy group in Toronto and the family of a man who was killed by police are threatening to take legal action if the provincial government doesn't make mental health training mandatory for officers.

'No one should die at the hands of police,' says sister of shooting victim Michael MacIsaac

Joanne MacIsaac, whose brother was shot dead by police, was at Queens Park Wednesday to call on Ontario’s Attorney General to ensure all police receive thorough training. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)

A legal advocacy group in Toronto and the family of a man who was killed by police are threatening to take legal action if the provincial government doesn't make mental health training mandatory for officers.

"My family and I want to do everything we can to prevent similar deaths ... No one should die at the hands of police simply because [police] are not adequately trained," said Joanne MacIsaac, who has led a charge to reform officers' training following the death of her brother.

Michael MacIsaac was shot dead by a Durham police officer in December 2013 while running naked and wielding a metal table leg in his Ajax neighbourhood during what his family describes as a psychological episode related to his epilepsy. 

At the coroner's inquest in July, the officer said he shot MacIsaac because he feared for his life. 

Joanne McIsaac said she was "dumbfounded" to learn de-escalation training is not mandatory for officers to deal with people with mental illness or people in crisis. 

She hand delivered a letter Wednesday to the attorney general and the community safety minister, saying if the government doesn't update the Police Services Act to make such training mandatory the family will launch a constitutional challenge.

"Simply put, I believe that if the officer who killed my brother had the type of training we are proposing today Michael would still be alive," she said.

"Our family dynamic is forever changed. We're here four years later and we're still trying to prevent this from happening to another family." 

No promises from provincial government

The MacIsaac family has teamed up with The Innocence Project, a volunteer legal team at Osgoode Hall. 

The Innocence Project has now studied 43 coroner's inquests between 1999 and 2017.

It found 31 of them have recommended mandatory de-escalation training for police interacting with people with mental illness.

The Police Services Act has not had a "significant" reform in 27 years, according to The Innocence Project. 

"I'm listening to Joanne and thinking, this is like déjà vu, like being in a time warp listening to a similar story 40 years later," said Alan Young, the project's director.

"The reality is over 40 years, lots of talk, lots of of expressions of regret, lots of recommendations of training programs, and nothing," Young said. 

Michael MacIsaac, pictured here with his wife, was fatally shot by Durham police during what his family says was a psychological episode related to his epilepsy. (Supplied by the MacIsaac family)

The province committed to updating the Police Services Act following a sweeping review of police oversight by Ontario Justice Michael Tulloch in April 2017 and an ombudsman's report in 2016, but it still has not made any changes. 

Marie-France Lalonde, Ontario's minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, said Wednesday currently officers do get "use of force" training. 

She said the government will look at concerns over inadequate de-escalation training for legislation coming this session, but she made no promises. 

"Currently we are looking at the training component, based on the ombudsman's report of 2016, and we would be bringing, hopefully, some clarification ... That's what we're reviewing right now," the minister said. 

'This is like apple pie' 

"This is not a controversial proposition ... This is like apple pie and motherhood ... I don't understand why I'm here today," Young said.

"It's time for the government to act with some courage and some will to introduce a training requirement, which everyone has told them is necessary for the past 40 years."

The team of lawyers and law students at The Innocence Project said they have also studied other jurisdictions and found that in the United Kingdom, for example, police officers get three years of training that includes dealing with mental health. 

Some police forces in Ontario may offer de-escalation training for officers dealing with mentally ill people or people in crisis at various police detachments, but it's not standardized. That's what the family and the Innocence Project want changed. 

"This is the thing that is shocking and distressing and this is why we want to push government or go to court if we need to," said Alan Young. 

The Innocence Project has prepared a constitutional challenge because it says the people of Ontario's charter right to life, liberty and security are being denied, but the group wants to give the province a chance to change the law on its own first. 

"The best course of action and what's in the public interest is not to litigate at this moment but to see if the government will come back and do what they've promised to do," Young said.