Policing the Policing of Psychiatric Patients
Chances are that when someone with a mental illness ends up in the hands of police, he is suffering from one of what's known in law enforcement as the big three: depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. "These people used to be dealt with in the mental-health system; now they are left until police intervention is necessary," said Gary Glacken, executive director of the B.C. Schizophrenia Society, during a telephone interview with the Georgia Straight. "Jails have become the new asylums."
It's not a role the police have chosen, and the consequences are sometimes tragic. Although relatively few in number, the deaths make the headlines. In February 1997, Toronto police shot and killed Edmund Yu, a paranoid schizophrenic, who threatened officers with a hammer when they tried to handcuff him. In December 1999, an RCMP officer shot Donald Mayer as he lunged at police with scissors after being cornered in a Langley hospital. That same month, Sai Ming Wai, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, was shot and killed by police in B.C. In August 2000, an RCMP officer shot and killed Norman Reid, who came at them with a hatchet when Newfoundland police tried to apprehend him. There were 13 such incidents in Canada between 1992 and 2002.
Whether or not they should be, the fact is that police are increasingly called on to intervene in situations of psychiatric crisis. A 2000 Canadian study estimates the time spent on such calls doubled from 1997 to 2000.
More troubling, over half the fatal police-shooting deaths in B.C. between 1980 and 1994 involved people with mental disorders, even though only 20 percent of Canadians experience mental illness during their lifetime. And 30 percent of these involved people with a history of schizophrenia, despite the fact that the disorder affects only one percent of Canada's population. (There are approximately 40,000 people with schizophrenia in B.C.)
Such tragedies could have been avoided, many judicial and mental health experts believe, if the officers involved had been better trained on how to handle calls involving the mentally ill. Overall, police handling of cases involving the mentally ill is inconsistent and unpredictable.
Two years ago, the Surrey RCMP detachment rolled out Car 67, a copycat of the Vancouver police department's Car 87 program, in which a core group of experienced officers team with veteran psychiatric nurses to take mental-health calls. "Before Car 67," said Surrey RCMP Insp. Amrik Virk by phone, "there were 497 different ways of handling these situations."
That is precisely the problem, according to an April 2004 report by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, which reviewed allegations of excessive force by RCMP officers when apprehending a young man with schizophrenia in October 2000. It recommended specialized training for all RCMP members and the development of national policy guidelines on mental-health crisis intervention.
It's one in a series of such recommendations. Inquests into all the aforementioned deaths--except the Reid case, which is still pending--also called on the RCMP to provide more training on how to respond to people suffering from mental illness.
But RCMP brass have not been receptive. As a result of the complaints commission report, they have reinstated specialized training for new recruits, a pilot program suspended in January 2004, but they are denying the need for such training for all members and for policy guidelines. In an official response from RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli to Shirley Heafey, chair of the complaints commission, Zaccardelli stated that policy is not the appropriate forum to provide guidance and that current training is more than adequate.
From her office in Ottawa, Sharron Ellis, senior communications officer for the complaints commission, said that although the commission applauded Zaccardelli for reinstituting training, it stands by its recommendation that all members should receive the program, especially those in the field.
Ellis cited the example of the officer who killed Norman Reid. "He had received three hours of training on dealing with the mentally ill 11 years before the shooting, and during the inquiry he said the incident would haunt him for the rest of his life. It's just not fair to ask our police officers to deal with these situations without proper training," Ellis said.
During an interview at his Cambie Street office, Chief Const. Jamie Graham of the Vancouver police department said he has both a personal and professional interest in ensuring his officers get appropriate training. "We work in a singular environment here," he said. "The Downtown Eastside is one of the most unique places in the world. There's no RCMP jurisdiction that compares to this one and that drives our training. The new phrase I'm using is socially relevant policing. The things we do have to be relevant to what's going on around us."
Graham's department is cited in the commission report, along with nine others, including Victoria, for having implemented training that recognizes the specific needs of people suffering from mental disorders.
It has also been commended for creating a pocket-size tips sheet for defusing situations involving people in psychiatric crisis. The bright-yellow card advises officers, among other things, to speak and move slowly, and to reassure the subject by saying things like "Take it easy" or "I'm here to help you." It's a departure from standard police-tactical training, which is action-oriented and based on quick response. "We've adopted current techniques used by the medical field," Graham said.
They are the techniques mental-health advocates, service providers, and consumers would like to see used more often. But until the RCMP adopts ongoing training programs, the positive outcomes resulting from a kinder, gentler approach may well depend on which police jurisdiction the person happens to be in at the time of crisis.