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Man shot by police had made earlier threats, coroner's inquiry told Add to ...

By the time a knife-wielding Byron Debassige was shot dead by police in a Toronto park on a winter evening, he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, battled alcoholism and been assigned case workers to help him deal with his mental illness.

How social agencies, health-care workers and the officers themselves dealt with the 28-year-old - and, by extension, how they must deal with mentally ill people in violent situations in the future - will be the central issues at a coroner's inquiry that began Monday.

In her opening address to the jury, the coroner's lawyer framed the quasi-judicial proceeding as a chance to scrutinize the services, including mental-health case workers and a group home, that tried to help the Ojibwa man in the months before his death.

"We will examine a little more of those supports to see if there is an opportunity to improve those services so others may benefit," she said. "It seemed Mr. Debassige could take advantage of the supports, but eventually his condition deteriorated."

The barrister for Mr. Debassige's family, however, set his sights squarely on police treatment of the mentally ill.

"There are a lot of people who deal with the same thing - security guards, health-care workers - who are threatened with knives, and they don't have guns," Barry Swadron said outside court.

Two years ago, the Special Investigations Unit cleared the officers involved, Constables John Tanner and Bradley Coutts, of wrongdoing in the Feb. 16, 2008, shooting, finding they had reason to believe their lives were in danger. During a recess, Joseph Markson, who is representing them at the inquiry, made a similar argument.

"When someone is coming at you with a knife, you must live or die in that moment," he said. "[Mr. Debassige's]mental health and intoxication is no longer of relevance to you at that point in time."

Yong Jian Su, whose sister owns a food store at Yonge Street and Davisville Avenue, testified that Mr. Debassige walked into the store around 8 p.m. and stole some lemons. When he confronted Mr. Debassige outside, he said, the young man first raised a juice bottle over his head, then pulled out a knife with a three-inch-long blade and made stabbing motions in the air. Mr. Su backed down and his sister called 911, he said, as Mr. Debassige walked away.

"He said, 'If you call the police, I will come back and get you,' " Mr. Su told the inquest.

Police tracked Mr. Debassige down at nearby Oriole Park, where they shot him.

Forensic toxicologist Marie Elliot told the jury Mr. Debassige had a blood alcohol level equivalent to more than 10 drinks at the time he was killed, along with traces of cannabis and prescription antidepressants in his blood.

John Doucet, who performed a postmortem on him, described how bullets had punctured the young man's lung, liver and kidney. As Dr. Doucet explained the injuries, Mr. Debassige's half-sister, Angie Assinewe, sat in the front row of the public gallery, wiping away tears.

"It's our hope the coroner's inquest can help us answer some of the questions surrounding Byron's death," she said outside. "We're sorry this day ever had to come."

The inquest can make recommendations to prevent similar deaths in future, but cannot assign criminal responsibility in the case.

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