Michael MacIsaac's family vows to push police, province for mental health training after inquest

The mother of a man fatally shot by a police officer four years ago says he would still be alive if the province and its police forces had adopted the recommendations from past inquests into the use of lethal force against someone who is in crisis.

Jury issued 38 recommendations, including extra week of de-escalation training at police college

The coroner's jury looking into the death of Michael MacIsaac, pictured here with his wife Marianne, issued 38 recommendations Wednesday to improve policing in mental health crisis situations. (Supplied by the MacIsaac family)

The mother of a man fatally shot by a police officer four years ago says he would still be alive if the province and its police forces had adopted the recommendations from past inquests into the use of lethal force against someone who is in crisis.

That belief, Yvonne MacIsaac said, will fuel her family's determination to make sure that 38 recommendations that came out of a coroner's inquest into her son's death Wednesday will change policing and mental health. 

The vast majority of the recommendations in the jury's report on Michael MacIsaac's death is not new. 

But some of the specifics are — rather than simply calling for more de-escalation training, the jury has recommended the Ministry of Community Services and Corrections fund one more week of training at the Ontario Police College. That would bump the course to 13 weeks, with the extra days dedicated exclusively to communication and de-escalation. 

Yvonne MacIsaac says that if recommendations from past coroner's inquests into fatal police shootings had been adopted, her son might still be alive. (Martin Trainor/CBC)
I drive by the graveyard and say, 'Hi Michael' and I probably cry… It's not right for him to go before me.- Yvonne MacIsaac, Michael MacIsaac's mother

And Yvonne MacIsaac, her daughter Joanne, and their lawyer vowed to "badger" both the Durham Regional Police Service and the provincial ministry to adopt the recommendations in the hope of saving someone else.

And saving another family from years of grief and confusion.

"It's hard," MacIsaac's mother said Wednesday, her voice catching. "I drive by the graveyard and say, 'Hi, Michael,' and I probably cry… It's not right for him to go before me."

A state of confusion

MacIsaac, 47, died on the morning of Dec. 2, 2013, after he was shot twice by Const. Brian Taylor, one of the Durham Regional Police officers responding to a call about a domestic assault in a suburban Ajax neighbourhood.

The man's family has since said that MacIsaac suffered from epilepsy and could become disoriented following a seizure.

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)

He and his wife, Marianne MacIsaac, had a brief physical confrontation at their home that morning, she has said — something she alleges had never before happened — following a seizure. MacIsaac then ran outside without any clothes on, again something that his family said was completely out of character and a sign that he was in the middle of some kind of psychosis.

When Taylor came across MacIsaac, the man may have been wielding a patio table leg and the officer alleged that the man didn't respond after he told him to "drop the weapon." MacIsaac's family contends that he was not holding the table leg when he was shot and witnesses provided varying accounts.

Offering help instead of issuing a threat

That first point of contact with police — what they say is what's known as "the police challenge" — should be the beginning of a conversation, the jury said.

Only one officer, preferably one with mental health training, should take the lead by using the person's name, asking if they need help, and trying to establish a rapport, the jury wrote in its recommendations.

Other recommendations include:

  • Training officers how to safely disarm people using "weapons of opportunity."
  • Training officers on how a stressful situation affects them, causing tunnel vision or hearing changes.
  • Renaming the use-of-force model to something less aggressive, such as "conflict resolution model."
  • "In any model, include and emphasize 'respect for the sanctity of life.'"

The lawyer for MacIsaac's family said the counsel for Durham Regional Police seemed "pretty vocal" about the desire for more de-escalation training.

Const. Brian Taylor, left, testified during the inquest that he was concerned his life was at risk when he encountered MacIsaac. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"We'll be giving them six months initially and then we'll continue to badger them," he told reporters. "I think it's important that we continue to follow up and hold these public institutions accountable."

The jury has called on the province to fund an extra week of de-escalation training for recruits at the Ontario Police College — something not suggested by any of the lawyers at the inquest.

The ministry responds

A spokesman for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services said staff still need to review that recommendation and the others. 

"Police officers are increasingly interacting with vulnerable individuals, often with complex mental health issues," spokesperson Andrew Morrison said in an emailed statement. "The ministry continues to work hard to modernize police training and we are committed to taking a prudent and evidence-based approach to addressing use of force and de-escalation in Ontario."

Joanne MacIsaac said that with the end of the inquest, she and her family will consider pushing the Special Investigations Unit to reopen its probe into the shooting. It had previously cleared Taylor of any criminal wrongdoing.

And she said that she'll be watching for Durham Regional Police and the province to follow through.

"We'll be back out there pushing for these and really forcing their hand until they have no choice but to start implementing them," she said of the recommendations. 

Anita Szigeti, lawyer for the Empowerment Council at CAMH, said she believes the public would like to see better training and communication when police attend mental health crisis situations. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Anita Szigeti, the lawyer for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health's Empowerment Council, said that it's crushing that past inquests have resulted in limited changes in the field, although there have been strides in terms of the public's perception when it comes to policing and mental health. 

The general public now sees that these are people who need help, rather than threats to public safety, she said. 

"I think, in the general public, there is now real motivation to make change," she said.

"That tends to convert itself into some political action — and the hope is the political action will follow the sentiment and outrage that these lives continue to be lost."

With files from Shannon Martin