In August, 2013, Peel Regional Police twice tasered an 80-year-old Mississauga, Ont., woman who was suffering from dementia.
Iole Pasquale was on a waiting list for a long-term care home when she wandered out of her house in the middle of the night carrying a knife, which prompted a call to 911. Three officers soon arrived and demanded that Ms. Pasquale drop the knife, but when she did not comply – her first language was not English – she was tasered. She fell to the ground and broke her hip, but still she did not drop the knife. So officers tasered her again. This time, Ms. Pasquale let go. She died of heart failure about seven months later.
That case alone should have made obvious that if three police officers are unable to safely contain and de-escalate a crisis involving a single confused senior, police can never really be expected to safely contain and de-escalate a mental-health crisis involving anyone, of any age. Yet it would take more than six years – until just this past February – for Peel police to unveil their Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team (MCRRT), a hybrid program that dispatches specially trained officers alongside mental-health professionals to situations where people are in crisis. Still, its implementation did not save Ejaz Choudry, who died at the hands of Peel police this past weekend during a mental-health call.
Mr. Choudry, who suffered from schizophrenia, was shot and killed in his Mississauga apartment after his daughter called a non-emergency line to request medical assistance. According to Mr. Choudry’s nephews, paramedics who arrived at the scene called police after they saw Mr. Choudry’s pocket knife. Though the precise sequence of events is now under investigation by the Special Investigations Unit, witness video taken that night shows a tactical unit breaking into the apartment through the balcony. Shots can be heard as police enter the unit.
Mr. Choudry is one of at least five Canadians who have died at the hands of police during mental-health crises over the past two months. D’Andre Campbell was killed by Peel police in early April. Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell from her Toronto balcony after police were called to her unit in May. Chantel Moore was shot and killed by police in Edmundston, N.B. And now Mr. Choudry is dead, killed in his own home. All of them were Black, Indigenous or racialized people.
Peel police have not said whether the MCRRT was called to the situation at Mr. Choudry’s apartment, but we do know that the Toronto police’s version – the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team (MCIT) – was not called to Ms. Korchinski-Paquet’s home, even though her family made clear that she was in mental distress. Police Chief Mark Saunders defended that decision by citing the risk involved: Since 911 calls in that case mentioned a knife, the MCIT would not be dispatched. “There is no way that I would put a nurse in a knife fight,” he said.
Yet surely he and other municipal leaders recognize that mental-health response teams are only useful if they are actually properly dispatched – and that won’t happen if the conditions require an unrealistic promise of safety. The very idea is to send in a nurse so there won’t be a knife fight. And as long as officers with weapons are sent instead, people in crisis will inevitably keep getting seriously hurt and dying.
In contrast to these sometimes-activated regional teams in Canada, the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets program in Eugene, Ore., has seen tremendous success in responding to these calls with medics and mental-health professionals only – no police. The workers do not wear uniforms or carry weapons, and according to its operations co-ordinator, police have only been called for backup less than 1 per cent of the time. No one has been seriously injured. The program has now been replicated in a handful of other U.S. cities.
The logic behind this sort of approach makes sense. If police officers were properly trained or inclined to work with sick people, they would have become social workers or nurses – not uniformed officers. The mere presence of police weapons at distress calls implies some expectation of use, which is fairly absurd: Mental-health calls are usually made to prevent a person in crisis from self-harming.
This all should have been clear seven years ago, when police used a taser to detain an octogenarian with dementia – and indeed, long before then. But here’s another chance for us to understand that police cannot, and should not, be expected to respond to mental-health calls.
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