Doug Pritchard witnessed a man wearing a blue hospital gown and carrying scissors get fatally shot by police on his street a month ago.
He didn’t know the 29-year-old, Michael Eligon, but says witnessing the shooting made him believe officers are inadequately prepared to deal with the mentally ill in crisis.
On Saturday morning, Mr. Pritchard and his neighbours will retrace Mr. Eligon’s last steps, as part of a vigil being held exactly one month after his death. They’ll meet at Toronto East General Hospital, from which Mr. Eligon fled, and walk to the street where he was shot before continuing to the local police station.
“Why the police took such violent and tragic action so quickly is what surprised me,” Mr. Pritchard said.
“What we’ve learned since is that Toronto really doesn’t have much mental-health support for front-line police officers, so they’re left in a very difficult situation.”
Witnesses said Mr. Eligon entered a convenience store near the hospital prior to the shooting. There were reports that a clerk suffered minor injuries during an encounter with him.
Toronto police cannot comment on Mr. Eligon’s death while it’s investigated by the Special Investigations Unit, which probes cases of death and injuries sustained in situations involving police. However, police held a news conference last month to show reporters how they train officers to respond to people in crisis.
Deputy Chief Michael Federico said all Toronto officers are given mental-health training each year when they have two days of use-of-force training. It includes instruction on how to calm situations down verbally and realistic role-play scenarios that mimic responding to someone with a mental illness. Additional training varies by specific job and the year, he said.
But Mr. Pritchard said the training in Toronto isn’t working and doesn’t compare with how other jurisdictions are equipping their officers.
“I think we need to keep asking questions, as these incidents keep occurring,” he said, referring to the deaths of Charlie McGillivary and Sylvia Kibingaitis.
Both had mental-health issues and died following situations with Toronto police last year. Officers were cleared by the SIU in both cases.
Police in Halifax and York Region have adopted an intensive 40-hour training program, developed in Memphis, Tenn., Mr. Pritchard noted. The program takes officers to a mental-health ward and gives them extra verbal techniques.
“Other police forces have found ways to make [fatal outcomes]much less likely, so what’s wrong in Toronto? I don’t understand,” said Mr. Pritchard, a retired co-director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, a religious activist organization.
He’s also calling for existing crisis teams, which pair a mental-health professional with an officer, to be available throughout the city, 24 hours a day. As of now, they are available in 10 of 17 policing divisions for 10 hours a day.
In Hamilton and other jurisdictions, such teams are available at all hours.
Mr. Pritchard had been out running with his dog on Feb. 3 when he saw the commotion near his home on Milverton Boulevard. Cruisers pulled up to where Mr. Eligon was on the street and three shots were fired, two of which missed and hit nearby properties, Mr. Pritchard said.
Since then, there hasn’t been a day when nearby residents who witnessed the shooting haven’t discussed what happened, he said. “In our neighbourhood, we learned a lot over the course of this terrible incident. We learned how poorly trained and how poorly supported our police are.”
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