Faced with a roving mentally ill man brandishing two pairs of scissors in the middle of a quiet street, Const. Louie Cerqua was scared for his life.
The police officer told a coroner’s inquest Monday that while he received training on how to deal with a mentally ill person, those lessons didn’t immediately come to mind before he decided to fire the three shots that killed Michael Eligon.
To Cerqua, the only way out of what he considered an increasingly dangerous situation appeared to be firing his gun.
“With the high stress situation like that, you’re going to resort to your firearm, it’s the only real option you have,” he said. “I shot him because he was closing in on me and he wasn’t stopping.”
Police use of force and how front-line officers respond to those experiencing mental health crises have emerged as key issues at the inquest which is probing the deaths of Eligon and two other Toronto-area residents who died in similar circumstances.
The inquest has heard that Eligon was wandering the streets in a hospital gown and socks on a cold morning in February 2012 after escaping from a hospital where he had been involuntarily admitted under the Mental Health Act.
The 29-year-old who suffered from depression and delusions stole two pairs of scissors from a convenience store, stabbing the shopkeeper in the hand in the process.
He then walked around a residential neighbourhood, stopping to ask two drivers for their car keys, and also tried to enter a home — all of which prompted multiple 911 calls to police.
Cerqua, 27, had been on the job for less than a year when he and a partner pulled up on the street where multiple police officers were trying to get Eligon to drop his scissors.
Cerqua told the inquest on Monday that he knew Eligon was going through some sort of mental health issue.
“With how wide his eyes were and the stare that he was giving and how his eyes were going back and forth, I realized that something emotionally was going on with Mr. Eligon at this time,” he said. “He’s got the scissors in a downward position, he’s kind of slicing through the air...he’s scanning all of us.
Although surrounded by multiple officers, Cerqua said Eligon did not react to repeated shouts to drop what police considered two deadly edged weapons
“Mr. Eligon wasn’t stopping, he wasn’t responding to any of the commands. I felt immediate or imminent danger towards myself,” he said.
The situation escalated when Cerqua and another officer backed up against a SUV while Eligon continued to advance.
Cerqua remembers yelling to Eligon, “Drop the weapon or you will be shot.”
At that point, he recalls Eligon shifting towards him and saying something.
“I heard, ‘One of you is going to die.’ That’s what I remember,” Cerqua said, while acknowledging that the inquest has heard other officers testify to different versions of that phrase.
When he felt he was running out of room, Cerqua told the inquest he felt like he was in a precarious position, so he used his gun.
“I was scared for my life,” he said, adding that he fired until he thought the threat had stopped.
“I followed training the best I could with what was unfolding.”
When asked by a member of the jury what recommendations he would suggest for the better handling of such a situation, Cerqua said more safeguards should have been in place to prevent Eligon from escaping the hospital and wandering on the street in the first place.
“If the person’s apprehended and taken to a hospital....they hold on to them and they keep them in a place of safety they’re not able to leave,” he said. “That’s what’s evident through this incident, it can be a tragedy.”
But the lawyer representing Eligon’s family at the inquest argued that Cerqua could have tried harder to use other tactics — like calm discussion, a baton or pepper spray — before he fired.
“In my view, if you have a pistol on somebody and he’s eight to ten feet away, you can always fire when he comes any closer,” Peter Rosenthal said outside coroner’s court.
Eligon’s family is pushing for police to put more emphasis on de-escalation.
“If you yell at a guy for 10, 15, 20 seconds to drop the knife and it doesn’t happen, you might try some other approach, especially if you know the guy is emotionally disturbed,” said Rosenthal.
“In particular you might say ‘Michael, wait a second, Michael let’s talk about this.’ You may not get through but it’s certainly worth an attempt. It’s not dangerous at all.”
The inquest has heard that officers, including Cerqua, stomped on Eligon’s hands as he lay crumpled on the ground, to get him to drop his scissors.
A bleeding Eligon was also handcuffed before first aid was administered because he was still considered a threat.
Meanwhile, Cerqua was later taken to hospital to be treated for a slash wound on his shin which required eight stitches, an injury he only noticed after paramedics arrived at the scene.
The Special Investigations Unit — Ontario’s police watchdog — has cleared authorities of wrongdoing in Eligon’s death.
The inquest is also probing the police shooting deaths of Reyal Jardine-Douglas and Sylvia Klibingaitis.
The jury presiding over the inquest may make recommendations at preventing similar deaths but is not tasked with finding fault or laying any blame.