Cops criticized over handling of mentally ill
Latest fatal incident blamed on lack of training
The Toronto Star
TORONTO — While Toronto police response to mentally ill assailants has improved over the years, mental health advocates argue not enough is being done to prevent unnecessary deaths, even after numerous recommendations by inquests.
The fatal confrontation between 52-year-old Sylvia Klibingaitis, shot dead outside her North York home on Oct. 7 after allegedly wielding a knife in front of police, is the fourth fatal confrontation between Toronto police and the mentally ill since 2008 - and at least the 14th since 1988.
The incidents raise a raft of questions around how equipped police are to handle encounters with the mentally ill.
"The history shows that police are not trained to disable or defuse the situation," said lawyer Barry Swadron, who represented the family of Byron Debassige, 28, a schizophrenic shot dead by police after stealing two lemons from a Yonge St. market in 2008.
"If you have a person who's mostly disturbed, who happens to have a knife or edged weapon, the chances are pretty good that the officer will shoot to kill," Swadron said.
In a heated situation, police are trained to stand firm.
"Backing off is counter to the way they operate," said Terry Coleman, a retired police chief in Moose Jaw, Sask., and a consultant with the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
While numbers are difficult to track, a 2011 study by the commission found that the mentally ill are "over-represented in police shootings, stun gun incidents and fatalities."
Each year, roughly one-third of police shootings in Canada resulting in injury or death involve people with a diagnosed or suspected mental illness, said Rick Parent, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University.
From 2000 to 2001, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health presented a weekly panel of mental health consumers and professionals to the Toronto Police College. All uniformed officers at the time attended, said Jennifer Chambers, a CAMH co-ordinator. She speculated the program was discontinued because police wanted to train in-house.
The Ontario Police College, where Toronto recruits train for 12 weeks, gives new officers a handbook on how to deal with mentally ill suspects.
But to be effective, training must bring police and the mentally ill face to face, said Anita Szigeti, a Toronto mental health lawyer.
"It needs to include consumers or survivors, so they can explain from their end," she said.
While the majority of encounters end without violence, advocates say each death is preventable.
In August, Charles McGillivary, a 46-year-old with mental health issues, died after police tackled him near Christie and Bloor Sts. The incident came only eight months after the Special Investigations Unit exonerated officers involved in the 2010 shooting of 25-year-old Reyal Jardine-Douglas, who suffered from paranoia.
He revealed a knife outside a stopped TTC bus.
McGillivary's death is under investigation by the SIU and Jardine-Douglas' by the coroner's office.
After 26-year-old O'Brien Christopher-Reid, who suffered from "profound delusions," was shot four times while allegedly threatening police with a knife in 2004, an inquest recommended police training include more communication techniques.
"It does nothing (for police) to scream and shout," Coleman said.
Ontario's Mental Health Act requires police to take into custody those they believe are at risk to themselves or others. A central problem is that police are ill-prepared to identify an armed assailant as mentally ill, let alone interact with that person in a heated standoff, Szigeti said.
An inquest into the death of Edmund Yu, a 35-year-old schizophrenic killed by police in 1997 after threatening them with a hammer, led to the creation of Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, an officer and mental health nurse duo on duty from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Ten Toronto police districts have the teams, but they're not designed for imminently violent situations, police say.
A team was not called before Klibingaitis was shot.
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