01/13/2014 11:50 EST | Updated 03/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Police should focus on mentally ill person in crisis not just weapon:inquest hears

TORONTO - Police have a duty to accommodate people with mental health issues who are experiencing a crisis up until the point when a life is at risk, Ontario's Human Rights commissioner said Monday.

When confronting a mentally ill person wielding a weapon, officers should find ways to respond to the individual, rather than just the knife, scissors or even gun they may be carrying, Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall suggested.

Hall's comments came at an inquest examining the police shooting deaths of three mentally ill Toronto residents.

Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klibingaitis and Michael Eligon were all gunned down after approaching officers with edged weapons in separate but similar cases.

Under the province's human rights code, said Hall, officers have a duty to accommodate someone's mental health issues "up until a point of undue hardship."

"What we're really saying is don't just go out and react to a knife or a gun, but look at possible ways of responding to people with mental health issues who also have a knife or a gun," she said outside coroner's court.

"We would like to see considerations for meeting the needs of the person with the weapon, the person with mental health issues, and doing that in a way that is still safe for the police and the public."

The inquest has heard that when an officer is faced with an individual advancing with a sharp object, their response is based on the person's behaviour and not their mental state.

It has also heard that officers under threat are trained to use their firearm to protect themselves and others once a situation has progressed beyond a certain point.

While acknowledging that she wasn't an expert on policing techniques, Hall nonetheless suggested forces could better integrate training on how to deal with the mentally ill into their teachings on use of force and other tactics.

"We're concerned when we see training that focuses on only one issue at a time," she told the inquest. "The two need to be put together — what happens when using force against or towards people with mental health issues."

Combating the stereotypes and stigmas associated with mental illness needs to be a constant battle, she said, while calling for province-wide collation of data on how police deal with those with perceived mental health issues.

"I believe perceptions of people can interfere with how they're responded to," Hall said.

"We recommend more data, we recommend more training, we recommend exploring more options because we know that people with mental health issues are continuing to die in encounters with police officers."

The province's police watchdog cleared authorities of wrongdoing in all three cases being examined by the inquest, prompting calls for justice from the families of those killed.

The officers who fired the shots that killed the three victims all told the inquest they had been scared for their lives at the time and using their guns had appeared to be the only option in what were rapidly escalating situations.

While Hall acknowledged there may always be some such situations, she said the amount of negative police interactions with the mentally ill was cause for concern.

"This occurs too frequently, and as a society we have an obligation to explore whether there are more effective ways. Is it possible to use different techniques that will de-escalate it and prevent the kinds of deaths that are of concerns to all of us?"

A lawyer representing the family of one of the victims said Hall's testimony was significant because it highlighted the protections afforded to the mentally ill under the human rights code.

"We learned from the Human Rights Commissioner that accommodating people with mental health issues is required by the police and everybody who offer services to such people," Peter Rosenthal said outside the inquest.

"So given that it's required, it's not just charity or being nice, you really have to do it."

The inquest, which began last October, is set to wrap up next week. Its jury may make recommendations at preventing similar deaths but is not tasked with finding fault or laying any blame.