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Police must learn to use words, not guns, in interactions with the mentally ill - Michael's essay

"The inevitable question raised by the families of the dead man or woman is simply: "How does a police officer responding to a call about someone in distress, end up killing that person?"
Michael Enright says the Ontario Ombudsman's report on interactions between the police and people with mental illnesses is "an eloquent plea for systemic and individual responsibility. His report is too important to be left to wither on a shelf beside earlier, similar reports and coroners' recommendations. It should be read by every police chief, every journalist, every judge. And by every police officer." (Simon Charland/CBC)

Their stories have a grim consistency, a deadly sameness.

Byron Debassige, 28, armed with a three-inch knife, killed by Toronto Police in 2008.

Douglas Minty, 59, holding  a pocket knife, killed by provincial police in Elmvale, Ontario, in 2009.

Michael Eligon, 29, wearing a hospital gown, carrying two pairs of scissors, killed by Toronto Police in 2012.

Michael MacIsaac, 47, running down the street naked, waving a table leg, killed by Durham Regional Police in 2013.

Michael MacIsaac was shot by police in Ajax, Ont., on the morning of Dec. 2, 2013. He died of his injuries in hospital a day later. (CBC)

They are only four of the more than 40 mentally ill people shot and killed by police in Ontario since 2000. Their stories and others are recounted in a stunning report by the Ontario Ombudsman released last June, called "A Matter of Life and Death."

The report by Paul Dubé and his investigators looked at the interaction between police and the mentally ill, and the number of deaths which followed. The highlights of the report were duly noted by the media, but it is not until you dig deeper into its findings that you feel the real sense of shock.

And perhaps the most shocking revelation of all, was not that police were ignoring and not following their training, but that they were — to the letter.

In blunt language, the report states: "Ontario police officers have plenty of training on how to use their guns, but not enough on how to use their mouths."

In other words, how to de-escalate a potentially violent confrontation without shooting. 

When they confront somebody holding a pair of scissors, say, their training tells them to pull their guns and yell at the person to drop the scissors. Training focuses almost entirely on weapons use and very little on de-escalation, a tactic which can defuse a situation before it turns violent.

But expanded training in the use of de-escalation techniques is not enough. As the report notes, the task will require a fundamental change in police culture.

The experts interviewed by Mr. Dubé's investigators cited a phenomenon which states, "Culture eats training." Translation: without a change in culture, no amount of training will effect positive change.

Douglas Minty, 59, was shot five times by an OPP officer in Elmvale, Ont., on June 22, 2009. (CBC)

Encounters with mentally disturbed people can be frightening to all involved. And they can escalate quickly without warning. But the inevitable question raised by the families of the dead man or woman is simply this: "How does a police officer responding to a call about someone in distress end up killing that person?"

Among the 22 recommendations of the report is a call for police to be equipped with body cameras. The Toronto police union, of course, hates the idea, its president calling them a feel-good project. But the city is moving ahead. Pilot projects are planned for Calgary, Montreal and Hamilton; Edmonton dropped its plans because of the costs.

We entrust our police with extraordinary powers; the power to arrest, to interrogate and charge and most importantly, the power to use lethal force. No other element in society has that kind of power. With the job comes responsibility.

The Ombudsman's report is an eloquent plea for systemic and individual responsibility. His report is too important to be left to wither on a shelf beside earlier, similar reports and coroners' recommendations. It should be read by every police chief, every journalist, every judge.

And by every police officer.

Click the button above to hear Michael's essay.

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