There were mentally ill people waving scissors and knives, there were police shooting them to death, and now, a jury has recommended methods of avoiding these tragedies.
Suffering from illness and bullets were Reyal Jardine-Douglas, 25, Sylvia Klibingaitis, 52, and Michael Eligon, the 29-year-old who was gunned down on an East York street. These three very similar cases from 2010 to 2012 were the subjects of a coroner’s inquest that now has its jury verdict. That verdict does not bring with it any criminal charges like a conventional court case would. Instead, the jury has proposed changes to police practices, aimed at preventing this from happening again.
They sifted through 220 proposed recommendations, and yesterday settled on 74, including: refinements in police training to help officers better understand mental illness and associated behavior; training in verbal de-escalation of confrontations with the mentally ill; and investigation into better defensive equipment for police, like shields and body-worn cameras.
“I believe Michael Eligon would be alive today if one of the police officers had just said ‘Hey, lets talk to him in a calmer, slower manner,’” Peter Rosenthal, the Eligon family’s lawyer said. Talking in a calmer, slower manner is a type of a de-escalation technique, something mental health advocates have been asking for and police have been resisting when an “edged weapon” is involved.
“You can use de-escalation techniques when you have the time,” the president of the Toronto’s police union, Mike McCormack, said. “When someone’s charging at you with a knife, you have to react.”
The lawyer representing Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair told the inquest expanded use of Tasers is the way to go. McCormack is adamant on Tasers too.
“I don’t know if they (Tasers) would always change the circumstances but it gives the officers an intermediate use-of-force option between the baton and the gun,” McCormack said. “But it won’t change the outcome in every situation…. Sometimes, lethal force is necessary.”
That’s not a universally held view.
“Tasers are not appropriate weapons for these types of situations…. One of the darts could fail or improperly attach to the person,” Rosenthal said. “I’m very opposed to further or expanded use of Tasers.”
Rosenthal thinks police should coax the individual to stop rather than barking orders in the traditional sense, “because mentally ill people can’t respond to traditional orders.” Officers use de-escalation techniques, but they don’t necessarily take that person’s state of mind into account.
“An officer could (also) approach the individual with a shield and apprehend them that way,” Rosenthal said.
Using a shield or body armour isn’t a practical option according to McCormack, because it’s too bulky to carry or wear.
Implementing “mobile crisis intervention teams” and putting body video cameras on cops were other suggestions put forward by lawyers for the victim’s families and mental health activists. McCormack doesn’t think cameras will change police conduct.