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David Butt

David Butt

DAVID BUTT

When police face mental health calls, an officer’s brain is the best tool Add to ...

David Butt is a Toronto-based criminal lawyer

A police shooting of a mentally ill person is tragedy with a capital T. Anguish for the loved ones, critical incident stress trauma for the involved officers, outrage among the general public, and bunker mentality retrenchment in the police community all combine to make a toxic stew. And that stew inevitably boils over in the intense heat of media saturation coverage.

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How are we to make sense of such events? How are we to unpack the intense emotions and conflicting perspectives that bubble fiercely to the surface at such times? How do we know which cries of anger or anguish are instructive and which are destructive?

Toronto police officers deal with 20,000 calls for persons in mental health distress every year. A tiny percentage result in lethal force – just five times between 2002 and 2012. But even one such incident – always deeply tragic, always highly visible – will inevitably define our perceptions of police conduct more generally. That may not be fair, but it is the reality that motivated a comprehensive report on the subject issued Thursday by retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci.

The report, which was requested by Toronto police chief Bill Blair after the death last summer of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, runs 346 pages and contains 84 recommendations. And it is clear that Mr. Iacobucci has grasped this incalculably challenging problem with a grip that is firm, all-encompassing, and yet gentle, like the author himself.

The heart of his report is one elegantly simple and balanced idea: People experience mental health crisis because illness renders their thought processes dysfunctional. Therefore Police will respond successfully to these crises only to the extent that their own thought processes and judgment are hyper-functional. In other words, the key to successfully addressing persons in mental health distress is the exercise of sound judgment by a well-chosen, well-educated and well-supported officer.

The wisdom of Mr. Iacobucci’s overall approach can be illustrated by a simple analogy that every parent will understand. Children going through either the terrible two’s or adolescence can sometimes act way out of character by throwing tantrums and making unreasonable, stubborn, totally thoughtless and sometimes hurtful demands. Parents and parenting experts all know that the wrong thing to do is judge the child merely by his or her present actions, and respond with force in anger and fear. Tough as it may be to do, we have to balance the need to maintain basic order and safety with the tolerance, wisdom, restraint, respect and de-escalation skills that come from understanding that the episode may not be what it seems, and has a deeper explanation.

Mr. Iacobucci’s recommendations emphasize that the key to successfully resolving mental health crises is empowering and supporting officers to think through these difficult situations soundly. The recommendations therefore emphasize improved and expanded training and supervisory support so that officers can better assess and respond to the mental health challenges that they are called upon to address. The recommendations promote expanded use of specialized multi-disciplinary mental health crisis response teams, comprised of mental health nurses and officers with more highly developed mental health training and experience.

The recommendations aim at improving information available to officers, including easy-access reference materials for dealing with mental health calls, and greater information sharing and co-ordination with the broader mental health system. The recommendations emphasize recruitment as a key opportunity to bring in future officers with the skills and temperament to deal thoughtfully with these challenging situations. And the recommendations promote enhanced support for the officers’ own mental health so that they are better able to handle these difficult and stressful calls.

Relatively few of the recommendations are about police equipment. Mr. Iacobucci does recommend pilot projects for the expanded use of conducted energy weapons and body cameras, but these initiatives have already gained traction elsewhere. The retired judge wisely avoids the simplistic mistake that complex interactions between police and persons in crisis can be improved by purchasing more gear.

Mr. Iacobucci also wisely refrains from suggesting any fundamental alteration to the rules of engagement between police and civilians. As he writes, we “cannot resort to absolutes because the context of encounters varies and in each case calls for the application of judgment.” This aspect of the report may be disappointing to ideologues on both the left and right who want police more and less constrained, respectively. But it is the right road to take. Mr. Iacobucci said it well in these words: “a balanced approach must be taken to … enhance the avoidance of lethal outcomes yet maintain the protection of human life and safety. I have sought to reflect this balance in the Report.”

Ultimately an officer’s best tool is her brain. When we select, train and support officers to exercise sound judgment, we all win. That is Mr. Iacobucci’s central message, and it resonates beyond the issue of persons in mental health crisis to every situation in which those in blue serve and protect.

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