Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Are the police receiving adequate training on mental illness

On February 3, 2012, a Toronto police officer shot and killed Michael Eligon, who was believed to be mentally ill. Eligon was admitted to Toronto East General Hospital on January 31, 2012 for a mental assessment and was supposed to be picked up by his foster mother on February 3, 2012. He walked out of the hospital in his hospital gown and walked around the neighbourhood looking confused and disoriented. He also had two pairs of scissors he took from a convenience store nearby. He attempted to enter into a number of homes and a few people called the police. The police arrived and an officer shot at Eligon three times when they finally found him, with one of the shots hitting and killing Eligon. 

This was a complete shock to the neighbourhood and brought an array of questions regarding the police and the adequacy of the training they receive on dealing with people who have a mental illness. Neighbours raised their concerns since these incidents keep occurring, as exemplified by the cases of Charlie McGillivary and Sylvia Klibingaitis that happened last year.

Charles McGillivary was unable to speak due to a childhood accident and communicated through sign language with his mother and used a handful of words only she could understand. He collapsed and died while being arrested by police. They mistakenly took him for another suspect and due to his large frame and the fact that he couldn’t speak, they took him down while arresting him. McGillivary fell into medical distress and was later pronounced dead at the hospital. He was walking with his mother when this occurred and the police wouldn’t listen to her pleas that he was mentally ill and couldn’t speak.

Sylvia Klibingaitis struggled with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and psychotic delusions. She had “peak anxiety” during the weeks prior to her death, and she made a 9-1-1 call for help during a mental crisis. She told the operator that she had a knife and that she was going to commit a crime. According to the S Investigations Unit (SIU), Klibingaitis burst out the front door with a large knife in her right hand when a police officer approached her home. The officer backed away from the house toward the curb. As she followed him toward the curb with knife in hand, he pulled his gun from its holster and repeatedly yelled, “Put the knife down!” She refused and moved closer. The officer fired three times. One bullet hit the garage door and another struck her in the chest, killing her.

The SIU was contacted in both cases, and in both cases the police officers were cleared of any wrongdoing.

It seems that front-line police officers are coming into more contact with people who have mental health issues, but they receive very little mental health support and training. On the Canadian Mental Health Association website, it states that a study by the London Police Department showed that between 1998 and 2001, the number of hours uniformed police spent dealing with people with serious mental illness doubled from 5,000 to 10,000. The same study showed that calls involving people with mental illness took up to $3.7 million of the $43-million London Police Department budget in 2001. The study also showed that the increase in calls was for minor nuisance crimes or no crime at all, and that violent crime among people with serious mental illness was actually decreasing.

In a resolution passed in June 2003, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police recognized that "the inadequate funding of community mental health services has resulted in vulnerable individuals being at risk of increased contact with the police and increased involvement in the criminal justice system."

Deputy Chief Michael Federico said all Toronto officers are given mental-health training each year when they have two days of use-of-force training. It includes instruction on how to calm situations down verbally and realistic role-play scenarios that mimic responding to someone with a mental illness. Additional training varies by specific job and the year, he said. Police in Halifax and York Region have adopted an intensive 40-hour training program, developed in Memphis, Tennessee. The program takes officers to a mental-health ward and gives them extra verbal techniques.

Mr. Pritchard, a retired co-director of Christian Peacemaker Teams is calling for existing crisis teams, which pair a mental-health professional with an officer, to be available throughout the city, 24 hours a day. As of now, they are available in 10 of 17 policing divisions for 10 hours a day. In Hamilton and other jurisdictions, such teams are available at all hours.

This leaves us asking a lot of questions regarding how equipped the police are in handling situations that involve the mentally ill. An important aspect to think about is the way in which those with mental health issues are viewed by others and if they may automatically be viewed as violent by the police. It begs the question of whether this is an issue of inadequate support and training, or a bias on the part of the police when it comes to handling interactions with those who are mentally ill. Many people believe that the police are treating people with mental illness like criminals and that something needs to be done in order to prevent further needless deaths of mentally ill people at the hands of the police.

It is important to prevent the criminalization of the mentally ill, which seems to be a big issue. A report by the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division, estimates that the percentage of mentally disordered offenders currently in jails and prisons range from 15 to 40%. This is a serious problem that needs to be genuinely addressed by the police. What solutions do you suggest for improving the ways in which police handle situations concerning people with a mental illness? Is more training required or should police receive more educational awareness regarding mental health matters, or both? As interactions between the police and the mentally ill increases, we will see if our concerns are going to be adequately addressed or not. 

Posted by Ada Vrana (Windsor Law I)

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