RCMP watchdog calls out 'unreasonable' use of force during wellness checks

The independent watchdog for the RCMP says it frequently has concerns about Mounties' "unreasonable use of force" during mental health wellness calls.

Civilian watchdog issues statement pointing to a 'general pattern of concern'

The independent watchdog for the RCMP says it has concerns about "unreasonable use of force" during RCMP wellness calls. (Christer Waara/CBC)

The independent watchdog for the RCMP says it frequently has concerns about Mounties' "unreasonable use of force" during mental health wellness calls.

In response to some recent high-profile and controversial incidents involving the RCMP, the chair of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) put out a statement today highlighting some of her agency's concerns about Mounties' actions.

"With respect to interacting with people in crisis, the commission's findings have consistently highlighted concerns about police adopting a 'command and control' approach — an authoritative style of dealing with a non‑compliant person," said Michelaine Lahaie.

"The commission's reports have repeatedly found that this 'command and control' approach has led to the RCMP's unreasonable use of force in apprehending persons in crisis."

The CRCC is the independent body created to review Mounties' behaviour. It receives, on average, more than 2,000 complaints from the public every year, ranging from allegations of wrongful arrest and improper use of force to reports of bad driving.

Over the past five years, the commission has issued 14 findings which concluded the RCMP's actions involving a wellness check or a person in crisis were "unreasonable," said Lahaie.

The reports have not been made public for privacy reasons, says the statement, but the chair said it's in the public interest to convey the commission's "general pattern of concern."

A still from a surveillance video shows Const. Lacy Browning stepping on student Mona Wang's head after a wellness check by the RCMP Jan. 20. Browning's conduct is now under review. (Submitted by Bridge Law Corporation)

The RCMP is under pressure to explain why an officer shot and killed Rodney Levi, a member of the Metepenagiag First Nation in New Brunswick, last month. His family said he suffered from mental health problems.

Levi was the second Indigenous person in New Brunswick to be shot by a police officer in just eight days. Chantel Moore, 26, was shot by an officer with the Edmundston Police Department during a wellness check.

On the other side of the country, an RCMP member is the subject of a criminal and code-of-conduct investigation and a lawsuit after a video emerged last month showing the officer dragging UBC-Okanagan nursing student Mona Wang down a hallway and stepping on her head during a wellness check in January.

CRCC recommends limiting police presence 

These types of incidents have spurred advocates, and Canada's largest psychiatric facility, to demand officers be removed from the front line response to people in mental health emergencies.

In a report from earlier this year, Lahaie said she recommended that RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki direct her commanding officers to work with the provinces and territories to develop different health care‑led options.

That report also asked the commissioner to consider amending RCMP policies to limit police involvement during wellness calls to instances where a police presence is necessary, based on criminality or a risk to public safety.

"I await the commissioner's response to my report," said Lahaie.

"I am hopeful that the increased public attention on this developing area of policing will allow the RCMP to find the right balance and establish effective policies, training and procedures to respond to people in crisis and to handle requests for wellness checks."

The CRCC chair isn't the first person to call out the RCMP's use of force when dealing with mental health calls.

Lahaie notes that the inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski, who died after being stunned multiple times with a Taser in the arrivals lounge of Vancouver International Airport in 2007, found that the "command and control philosophy underlying police recruit training, however appropriate generally, is both inappropriate and counterproductive when dealing with emotionally disturbed people."

Retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci echoed those findings during his 2014 review of how Toronto police approach people in crisis. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair was the chief of the Toronto Police Service at the time.

"The challenge, and one of the most critical requirements for police, is to know how to de-escalate a crisis involving a person who, as a result of what is effectively a transient or permanent mental disability, may not respond appropriately (or at all) to standard police commands," he wrote.

"The use of force by police should always be a last resort."

CBC has requested comment from the RCMP.

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