08/19/2013 05:07 EDT | Updated 10/19/2013 05:12 EDT

How Do We Protect the Mentally Ill From Police Violence?

I was very encouraged when I received a press release that Louise Bradley, the president of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, was going to speak to the Canadian Association of Police Boards in Saskatoon on August 15. The conference was to discuss the relationship between police forces and people suffering from mental health issues and illnesses.

In light of the publicity surrounding the killing by Toronto Police of Sammy Yatim in Toronto, the timing was perfect. And while there is no evidence that Mr. Yatim had a mental illness, his shooting has reminded everyone of all those with mental illness who have been shot by police. The Toronto coroner has called for a combined inquest into three recent deaths of mentally ill people at the hands of police -- that of Michael Eligon, a 29 year old shot near Toronto East General Hospital in his hospital gown brandishing a pair of scissors; Reyal Jardine-Douglas, 25 who was shot by police as he jumped off a Toronto bus in 2010; and Sylvia Klibingaitis, 52 who was shot by police in 2011.

The case that was very similar to that of Mr. Yatim was of Edmund Yu, a man with schizophrenia, who threatened police with a hammer on a streetcar in Toronto in 1997. That inquest recommended that police have a mobile crisis team involving a police officer and a psychiatric nurse. Unfortunately, these teams only work till 9:00 PM.

I had hoped that Ms. Bradley would add to the discussion of police interactions with people with mental illness. Toronto Police Chief, Bill Blair, has appointed retired judge Dennis O'Connor to look into these matters while Ontario Ombudsman, Andre Marin, will also be reviewing police procedures.

Police shootings are not just a Toronto problem. In an earlier post, I had talked of Douglas Brown in Burlington, a man with schizophrenia, who is suing the Halton Region Police Department for his having been tasered and charged criminally (and then acquitted by a judge) by five members of that force in a hospital emergency room. Then, there is the Hamilton case of a man who was on a short leave from a psychiatric unit in a Hamilton hospital who was found wandering along the middle of a busy highway. Confronted by two police officers, he left the highway and went up a hill into a wooded area that bordered his house. Shots rang out and he is dead. No one knows what happened (and the police are not talking) but the case is being investigated.

Unfortunately, Ms. Bradley, in my opinion, blew it. She did not deal with the reality of police shootings nor did she even mention it in her talk, although she alluded to it in her discussion of housing. Housing the homeless, she suggested, would prevent some of the police interactions that have been in the news in the past few weeks. But, one reality of police shootings is the lack of proper resources to treat people with serious mental illnesses in the first place. She told the conference attendees that one if five have a mental health problem and that these people are less violent than others. But, your average cop does not come into contact in a potentially violent situation with someone with a mild depression. They are more likely to come into contact with someone who is floridly psychotic, unreasonable, untreated and who may do anything.

Ms. Bradley paid lip service to that by saying that she would like to see that police encounters with the mentally ill be more positive for all and to make police forces healthier places and hence safer for citizens. In fact, she urged police services and boards to discuss mental illness openly and create work environments where officers will not fear ridicule or rejection if they themselves seek help. She did say that the commission has produced a study of police academy training on dealing with the mentally ill but not if or how it would or should be implemented but she did encourage them to implement them.

More and more police services are using specially trained police and psychiatric personnel to diffuse situations. but they are not widespread enough and do not seem to be used in these situations. The Toronto team goes off-duty at 9:00 PM as mentioned above and the reality of these police teams is nowhere near as good as it is on the CBC drama Cracked about a specialized police psychiatry unit.

The most realistic comment from that conference that I saw came from Chief Frank Elsner of the Greater Sudbury Police Service. "State intervention in the home because of mental illness is not appropriate," he said. When he was offered funding for more officers, he turned it down, saying the money needed to go to mental health services instead. Like most police services across Canada, his spends more and more time dealing with mental health crises that should be dealt with earlier by other agencies better suited to treatment. Chief Elsner added that governments have abdicated responsibility for the huge problem of mental illness.

Laura Sky, a documentary film producer who has investigated police use of force told the conference according to the Saskatoon Star Phoenix that public policy has led to people with mental illnesses being moved out of institutional care to the community, adequate funding for their care hasn't followed, and problems that draw in the police have increased.

In contrast, Ms. Bradley told the conference that the MHCC wants to improve attitudes and behaviours around mental health. Again according to the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Bradley urged police services and boards to discuss mental illness openly and create work environments where officers will not fear ridicule or rejection if they seek help. The stigma attached to mental illness is part of the reason for the complacency of Canadians and their governments, Bradley said. Police, with their exposure to traumatizing events, are as vulnerable as any other worker to conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder or alcohol abuse, she told those present.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada could make a significant contribution to reducing these tragedies by using some of its money to fund more specialized police/psychiatry units and to have them operate for longer periods of time.

Sammy Yatim