The head of Ontario’s police watchdog says the videotape of Toronto police fatally shooting a man in mental distress revealed that it was a case that “cried out for answers.”
Ian Scott, director of the Special Investigations Unit, hopes a coroner’s inquest – announced Thursday – into the Feb. 3 shooting of Michael Eligon will provide some.
There’s a concerning subtext to the case, said Mr. Scott, whose investigation exonerated the officers in the shooting. “You don’t want mentally disordered people to be the victims of lethal use of force and you don’t want police officers to use lethal [force]”
Mr. Scott released his decision not to charge the officers late last month. However, in his report, he raised the issues of police training and whether police should have tasers that could be used instead of guns in crisis situations.
These are “the kind of questions that any … responsible citizen might ask about this situation,” Mr. Scott said. “I don’t know the answer to those questions, but somebody should be asking them.”
Mr. Scott said there’s a misconception that this is the SIU’s job. The SIU is frequently targeted by critics who perceive some deaths as avoidable and say officers are not being held to account. But the SIU director said his mandate is limited to whether police have broken the law, including whether the threat warranted a fatal use of force.
On that cold February morning, Mr. Eligon, 29, fled Toronto East General Hospital, where he had been admitted involuntarily under the Mental Health Act. Still wearing his hospital gown, he entered a convenience store, picked up two pairs of scissors and nicked the hand of the owner. The shopkeeper called 911. There were more 911 calls from people in the vicinity after Mr. Eligon demanded car keys from two women and attempted to break into two homes.
Twelve officers arrived and surrounded Mr. Eligon on residential Milverton Boulevard. The police shouted at him to drop the scissors. He ignored them and seven officers formed a line and drew their guns. One officer backed into a truck, causing the distance between him and Mr. Eligon to shrink. Mr. Eligon was not responding to the police commands to stop and drop the weapons. Officers told the SIU that Mr. Eligon said something along the lines of ,“One of you is going to die.” He continued to move forward and ignore commands, the SIU report said. Three shots were fired.
“From the perspective of the police officers … it turned very quickly into a situation where the lives of one of the officers and another was under imminent threat,” Mr. Scott said.
Mr. Scott attributes the seemingly increasing interaction between mentally ill people and police to “social forces” that have been at play in Canada for years. The move away from institutionalized care has put more people with mental illnesses into the community, he said.
Training varies from force to force. Mr. Scott said, noting that he doesn’t have the answer as to whether there needs to be a standard minimum or perhaps different training.
Some specialized units, including Toronto’s Emergency Task Force, receive extra training for crisis situations, but Mr. Scott noted that front-line officers are the ones who are routinely involved in the type of scenario that can escalate quickly. He pointed to the shootings of Mr. Eligon and Sylvia Klibingaitis, who called 911 on herself last October.
Ms. Klibingaitis told the emergency dispatcher that she was bipolar and wanted to kill her mother, who was sleeping in their house at the time. When Toronto police arrived, she ran at them with a large knife and was shot dead. The officers were cleared by the SIU.
Mr. Scott said having front-line officers who are aware of the issues in this area and some of the red flags would be a good thing. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have Eligons in the future … but it does mean that hopefully there will be scenarios in the future that you and I never hear about.”
As well, Mr. Scott wondered whether front-line officers should be given tasers – a less lethal option. Ontario regulations allow only supervisors and specialized units to carry the conducted energy weapons.
When the ministry explored taser use in 2009, its research included a study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. A database of taser use suggested that over 72 months, almost a quarter of the instances involved someone who was mentally ill. In 45.3 per cent of those cases, lethal force would have been justified, or the subject posed an “imminent lethal danger to himself.”
Issues around training and taser use will be tackled in the coroner’s inquest, which is separate from the SIU and the ministry’s branch that oversees policing. Mr. Scott said he understands public frustration when there are “competing governmental agencies that don’t appear to be taking ownership of the issue.”