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How Well Do Police Deal With Mentally Ill People?

09/03/2013 12:19 EDT | Updated 11/03/2013 05:12 EST

It is the story of the summer that has dominated headlines, has invoked debate, and has the country divided. I'm talking about the death of Sammy Yatim, the young man who was killed when Toronto police shot him after responding to calls of an individual being aggressive towards passengers on a streetcar. The officer who discharged his weapon is on bail awaiting trial on a charge of second-degree murder in relation to the death of Yatim.

There are a lot of theories circulating as to what happened in this case. It's a very delicate situation and only a court and a coroner's inquest can determine what truly happened though both of these things likely won't take place for years. One thing that is being talked about a lot is Yatim's mental capacity at the time of his death. Yatim's medical history has not been released by investigators or his family at this time.

As an outspoken and very public mental health advocate a lot of people have approached me about my thoughts of the Yatim case. I don't have every single fact of the case at my disposal and while it's easy to want to rush to a conclusion as to what I think happened, I don't believe that it's appropriate and I'm going to put my confidence in our justice system and am hopeful for a just process.

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately as to the interactions between those with mental illness and front-line officers. I not only thought about my dozen-plus arrests as a teenager under Ontario's Mental Health Act, but the feedback I've heard from others with mental illness who've come into contact with police but also families and front-line caregivers.

It is easy to rush to conclusions when we see something that pains us and scrapes our soul; however before blogging about this subject I wanted the appropriate amount of time to ponder and reflect about my position because it is a delicate subject. The relationship between the mental health community and police is fragile but that won't stop me from holding back.

Police are not social workers, they are not psychiatrists, they are not therapists. The police are tasked with keeping the community at large safe. When a 911-dispatcher takes a call asking for the police, they pass along the information on to the responding officers that they are given by the caller(s). If the dispatcher is told somebody is armed, the police are going to respond accordingly.

Police get calls on a daily basis to respond to calls that I would never want to respond to, they are brave and have risked and even lost their lives to protect fellow officers and civilians. It is rare, if ever, that somebody calls asking them to respond to a feel-good situation. I'm sure it would be a nice change of pace but they're literally responding to life and death calls each and every day.

Seconds matter and front-line officers have very few of those to decide what they believe to be the best course of action. It is easy for all of us to say "Had officers known this or that they should have responded like this." I am certain the police have these conversations too and it hurts that many of these conversations take place after a life is lost. But I asked myself what I would do as a front-line officer if I was facing somebody who was physically threatening towards me and possibly armed if that's the information I received from the dispatcher, bystanders, or if I thought the distressed person was reaching for something that could put my life in danger.

When officers are faced with possibly losing their life and reaching for their lethal weapon the choice is obvious but what other choice do they think they really have? With the Government of Ontario now allowing front-line officers to have access to conducted energy weapons otherwise known as Tasers (though individual police forces will need to find the funding) it is my hope another life won't have to be lost.

There are some very good men and women in uniform on the front lines but I feel like this issue goes far beyond them. This is a complicated subject that has society divided and the law enforcement and mental health communities are struggling to find common ground. It's clear the police are having difficulties recognizing somebody in mental distress and are given just seconds to make a decision as to how they should respond.

I won't pretend that I have the answers as to what police should do because it's clear those directly involved and impacted don't have the answers either. My view on this matter is simply one voice in a very crowded arena. We, as a society, need to have a long and thoughtful debate as to what needs to be done in the hopes that lives are no longer lost. Until then, society's finest will make a life-altering decision in a limited amount of time with a limited amount of information.

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