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The Globe and Mail

Families of people shot by police want to aid better understanding of mental illness

Evan Jones,18, died on Aug. 25, 2010, at his residence in Brantford, Ont., during an encounter with the Brantford Police Service.

It wasn't long after Caroline LeBlanc got home from work that her son locked her out.

Evan Jones, 18, was having another mental-health crisis. He had been crying, drinking and knocking furniture over shortly before, Ms. LeBlanc says, so she called 911.

Police quickly arrived at her home in Brantford, Ont. The situation escalated with Mr. Jones threatening himself and police with two large knives, and the young man was shot dead, according to Ontario's police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, which cleared officers in the case.

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"This happened really fast ... they were all yelling and screaming," Ms. LeBlanc said. "I never should have phoned them. If I had any idea what would happen, I would have been standing in front of him."

She's having to relive her son's death two summers ago again this week at a coroner's inquest in Hamilton. But she has reason to hope that police response to the mentally ill and crisis situations may improve. Toronto's police chief recently promised to review the force's response to people in crisis. This week, a group for families of people shot by police will meet for the first time and plan ways to bridge the gap between officers and the mentally ill.

"How the police are dealing with someone in a crisis isn't working," said Ms. LeBlanc, who still lives in the home where her son died.

When police arrived on Aug. 25, 2010, Mr. Jones was standing on the porch holding two large knives, according to the SIU, so an officer drew his gun and told him multiple times to drop them. Mr. Jones instead held the blades to his throat, demanding police kill him, the SIU said, adding that three officers then followed him back into his house and discovered that his sister and niece were upstairs.

Mr. Jones went toward two officers with the knives at his throat, the SIU said, and an officer tried to use pepper spray but it had no effect. Mr. Jones raised the knives and threw one toward the officers. The SIU said he raised a cleaver over his head and was shot four times.

Constable Nat Laing said that while Brantford police already have crisis intervention training, the force welcomes any recommendations from the inquest. "[It's]an opportunity to make public the events surrounding a death which may be used to prevent further deaths," she said in an e-mail.

The inquest jury has been hearing from witnesses and experts to determine whether to make recommendations. While police are allowed and instructed to use lethal force when a person poses an imminent threat to someone's life, activists say officers could be better equipped to de-escalate crisis situations before they reach that point.

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The family's lawyer, Glenn Stuart, said he's hoping the inquest will answer questions about why police decided to follow Mr. Jones into the house, what exactly happened there and how training prepared the officers to act the way they did. He said he wants to discuss equipping officers better, with training and weapons other than guns, including tasers.

As well, Mr. Stuart said he wants to get a better understanding of whether Mr. Jones "slipped through the cracks" of the medical system. It's clear he was in mental distress when he was shot, Mr. Stuart said.

In the months before his death, he was involuntarily admitted to hospital for mental illness, his mother said, and he'd been struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. Ms. LeBlanc said her son had been considering going back to school to get his high school diploma, enjoyed cooking and adored his niece.

Karyn Graham, who is gathering families who have lost a relative at the hands of the police, said she thinks Ontario is at a tipping point. Public awareness about crisis response is growing, she said, and conversations within police forces about how to improve are starting.

"It's something that just keeps coming up again and again," she said. The group she's organizing, Grief2Action, will have its inaugural meeting on Saturday in North York.

Ms. Graham's son, who she said suffered from mental illness and addictions, was fatally shot by a Waterloo police officer in 2007. Ms. Graham said she hopes the group will work with Ontario police forces to develop consistent training that better prepares officers to de-escalate crises without fatal violence.

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"We need to help each other," she said. "They're the experts in their world, we're the experts in ours."

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