Mental health team, crisis training for cops among suggestions at MacIsaac inquest

Recommendations for various agencies, including the Durham Region Police Service, the Ontario Ministry of Health and the Ontario Chiefs of Police were offered to a five-person jury today at the ongoing coroner's inquest into the police shooting death of Michael MacIsaac.

Lawyers at the ongoing inquest into the police shooting of Michael MacIsaac offer recommendations to jury

Michael MacIsaac, pictured here with his wife, was fatally shot by Durham police in 2013. Lawyers at an inquest into his death offered a list of possible recommendations to a five-person jury on Monday. The jury is expected to choose which recommendations to submit to public bodies in the following days. (Supplied by the MacIsaac family)

Recommendations for various agencies, including the Durham Region Police Service, the Ontario Ministry of Health and the Ontario Chiefs of Police were offered to a five-person jury today at the ongoing coroner's inquest into the police shooting death of 47-year-old Michael MacIsaac.

MacIsaac, who was confronted by three Durham officers after receiving calls about his aggressive behaviour and wellbeing, had been running naked through an Ajax neighbourhood in December 2013, banging on car windows and destroying patio furniture.

Const. Brian Taylor, one of the officers who responded to the call, fired 12 seconds after stepping out of his vehicle, then according to a witness ran to help MacIsaac, who died of his injuries.

The recommendations submitted to the jury Monday, 38 in all, were drafted by lawyers who took part in the inquest. The jury is expected to consider and adopt these recommendations in a majority-rules vote in the following days.

Among the recommendations:

  • De-escalation training for Durham officers and recruits at the Ontario Police College
  • Participation of people with lived experience of mental health issues within de-escalation training
  • Mandatory in-depth mental health training for all frontline officers
  • Creating a 24-hour mental health crisis team to respond to calls before police are summoned
  • Equipping police cars and uniforms with cameras
  • Designating special "mental health officers" and dispatching them to crisis calls first
  • Consider replacing the "use of force" model

Jury asked to keep threat to officers in mind

Calls for increased crisis de-escalation and mental health training for police officers have been ringing for years.

In MacIsaac's case, Taylor, the officer who fired the fatal shot says he felt threatened by MacIsaac, who was allegedly holding a three-foot metal table leg at the time of confrontation.

Const. Brian Taylor, left, testified about the moments leading up to his decision to shoot Michael MacIsaac on Dec. 2, 2013. MacIsaac died from his injuries. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Taylor says he told MacIsaac to "drop his weapon," the standard police command to civilians brandishing clubs, knives or guns.

His lawyer, Bill MacKenzie, asked the jury to keep in mind MacIsaac's posture. "MacIsaac was holding a metal pipe like a baseball bat and yelled 'come on.' Constable Taylor thought the bar was going to be driven through his skull."

MacKenzie outlined the use-of-force model police follow in crisis situations. When officers are faced with imminent threat, lethal force becomes an option, he said.

Only if there is "time and distance" does de-escalation occur. "In this instance, the immediate response was unavoidable," he said.

Although only 12 seconds lapsed between Taylor's assessment of threat and bullets leaving his gun, MacKenzie says, "those few seconds have been thoroughly investigated."

Ontario's police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, has cleared Taylor of criminal wrongdoing. 

The jury asked Taylor about the benefit of hindsight. "I think there could have been a better way to resolve the incident," he responded.

Mental distress plagued by stigma

MacIsaac's family said he was in significant mental distress and had suffered an epileptic episode earlier in the day.

Anita Szigeti, inquest lawyer for the Empowerment Council, which advocates for changes to mental health policy in law enforcement, asked the jury Monday to consider the stigma of mental illness as they select recommendations.

"There is no more us and them," she said, referring to Canadians' one-in-five chance of lifetime mental illness.

MacIsaac stripped off his clothes and ran through his Ajax neighbourhood after a physical altercation with his wife and sister. They say he was in a state of extreme mental distress following a seizure earlier that day. (Supplied by the MacIsaac family)

Szigeti pointed to two major assumptions about the mentally ill — that sufferers are both dangerous and of low intellgience — as driving factors in tragic outcomes like MacIsaac's.

The officers who apprehended MacIsaac reported that he may have had "excited delerium," a contested term used in police training across the country which applies to somebody in a state of psychological distress.

Szigeti pointed out that neither officer called an ambulance upon assessing MacIsaac, which is mandatory when cases of excited delerium are suspected.

Public losing trust in police, says lawyer

Szigeti told the inquest that people experiencing mental health issues will lose trust in police and refrain from calling them for help.

She said the general public will follow suit.

The recommendations that come from coroner's inquests in Ontario aren't legally binding. The jury does not assign blame, but instead suggests policy and procedural changes various agencies can make to prevent future deaths.

Coroner's inquests are triggered when a civilian is shot by police. They suggest changes public bodies can make to avoid similar deaths in the future. (Office of the Chief Coroner: Ontario)

Mandatory coroner's inquests are triggered when a person is in the process of being detained.

Troy Harrison, the lawyer representing the coroner, told the jury that limited de-escalation training is a recurring theme at these inquests.

Roy Wellington, lawyer for the MacIsaac family, stressed the same point.

Police are told to perceive threats "where you and I may not," said Wellington, which leads them to respond with lethal force. But he emphasized that communication, rather than bullets, is an officer's greatest tool.

Wellington said this indicates a disconnect between training and what officers do in the field.

Officers, time and again, say the same things at inquests, Wellington said. "'I feared for my life. I followed my training. I had no choice.' These are tired tropes that are presented to us endlessly."

With files from Shannon Martin