Mom of slain man critical of police handling of people with mental illness

Karyn Graham’s son was mentally ill and addicted to prescription drugs. In 2007, he was shot and killed by the Kitchener police after stealing prescription medicine at a Shopper’s Drug Mart.

The loss of her son has left her extremely critical towards the police and the way they deal with situations that involve people living with mental illnesses.

Graham spoke at an OCAP-organized protest on Mar. 15 in front of Toronto Police’s 51 Division. Numerous social activists showed up at the demonstration in support of International Day of Action Against Police Brutality.

Graham says police colleges and training programs don’t focus enough on developing communication skills in order to deal with someone that is mentally ill.

“We have to get to the young before it gets to this point,” she said. “We need to attack the police colleges and say, ‘What are you teaching these guys?’”

Centennial College’s Police Foundations professor Philip Semple said the school’s program does a thorough job in preparing students to deal with a variety of potential dangerous situations.

He said students in the police foundations program are required to take general education courses where they work with the elderly, people with disabilities and small children.

“We are teaching all of our students to treat everybody with respect,” he said. “If someone is suffering from a mental illness, you don’t lie to them or trick them. You deal with everybody reasonably and rationally.”

Students participate in visual exercises involving various scenarios. They can determine how different mock situations end depending how they answer the instructor’s questions.  The professor would debrief the situation afterwards and review the some of decisions.

Semple also uses role-playing as a means to teach. He said he’s locked himself in a washroom stall and pretended to be a person considering suicide. His students then have to find ways to calm him down.

But no matter how much training police officers receive, Semple said dealing with people with metal illnesses could still be tricky and unpredictable.

“It’s the nature of the police business and there’s a lot of environmental factors,” he said. “You have to ensure officer safety, but the first and foremost priority is safety of the people.”

He said it’s generally difficult to determine if someone has a mental illness during an altercation. Officers usually find out afterwards.

Graham is currently in school at Mohawk College to become a social worker. She has been a strong advocate for mental illness and drug addiction since her son’s death.