Ontario’s minister in charge of policing has ordered her department to review how officers across the province respond to people in the throes of mental illness after a string of fatal shootings by police.
“We need to take a step back and see what are we doing and what is done elsewhere, and to come out with recommendations,” said Madeleine Meilleur, the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, in an interview.
The move comes on the heels of an announcement that Toronto police will review its protocols after three recent deaths.
Standards enforced by the province are minimal and in many cases individual forces have bolstered their training and response methods related to mental illness only after coroner’s inquests have made recommendations following tragic deaths.
A Globe and Mail investigation earlier this year found that the amount of training and how police approach people in psychiatric crises varies widely.
Ontario’s review will attempt to find best practices by consulting experts, including the province’s chief coroner and forensic pathologist, Ms. Meilleur said.
“We read too often in the paper that there’s an unfortunate incident that occurs,” she said. “I’m not attributing blame here because ... the police officers arrive on the scene, they don’t know ... the individual they face is someone with mental illness.”
The closing of beds and the move away from institutionalized mental-health care in Canada has put the responsibility of responding to people in crisis more and more in the hands of the police, who have limited access to health-care experts in these crucial moments.
“Health issues and health problems are always on my mind,” said Ms. Meilleur, a former nurse, who was appointed to her portfolio last October.
John Pare, the deputy police chief in London, Ont., who sits on the justice committee of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said he welcomes recommendations from the province. Police are looking to improve their response to people in crisis, he said, but health care needs to improve so police aren’t the default responders.
While officers are instructed to use lethal force when someone poses an imminent threat to a person’s life, advocates say officers could be better equipped to de-escalate crisis situations before they reach that point.
Recent fatal shootings in Toronto include that of Sylvia Klibingaitis, who called 911 herself last October and said she was bipolar. The province’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, cleared police in the case and said she went toward an officer with a knife.
Michael Eligon, 29, was shot in February after he fled a hospital wearing only a hospital gown. The SIU, which cleared officers in that case too, said he was carrying scissors and threatened police. About a dozen officers surrounded him, shouting demands that he ignored, the SIU said.
Ms. Klibingaitis’s sister, Anita Wasowicz, said she welcomes the province’s review but wishes it happened sooner. “My sister’s death can at least be a stepping stone toward preventing other families suffering like we are,” Ms. Wasowicz said. “She shouldn’t have died in vain.”
She said she believes officers escalated her sister’s crisis by approaching in an authoritative way, shouting and pointing their guns. “Individuals in a crisis can’t often listen to orders,” she said.
The decision to launch the review is recent so there’s no deadline yet for the recommendations, said a spokeswoman for the minister.
Mental health lawyer Anita Szigeti has advocated for a public provincial inquiry but so far the ministry has no plans to open the review up for public input. But Ms. Szigeti said the probe is still a good start. “We’re admitting that there’s a problem,” she said.
She said existing response teams that pair mental-health professionals with police need to be changed so that they can respond to 911 calls first. Some police forces have teams now for parts of their jurisdiction but they aren’t available 24/7 and are often unable to respond until front-line officers have deemed a scene safe.
For front-line officers across the province Ms. Szigeti said there should be intensive training like a 40-hour model developed in Memphis, Tenn. The training, which was recently adopted in York Region, includes exposing police to people with mental illnesses when they are not in crisis.
Ms. Szigeti said the review should look at alternatives to lethal force, including tasers, for front-line officers who are first to arrive to scenes. But the minister said the province is not looking to change its policy, which sets out that only supervisors and specialized units can carry tasers.
Dorothy Cotton, a psychologist who has reviewed officer training across the country, said police dispatchers also need better training so they know the right questions to ask and information to relay to officers about someone’s mental state.
All new recruits get brief crisis training at the Ontario Police College but training within forces varies widely. There needs to be more consistency, Dr. Cotton said, although communities will have their own needs. “There is no one-size-fits-all model,” she said.
Public outcry over police awareness of mental-health issues was reignited in Toronto last summer over the case of Charlie McGillivary, a 46-year-old disabled man who was unable to speak. He collapsed and died after he was taken down by police in a case of mistaken identity. The SIU cleared officers in the case.