Philip Moscovitch is a writer and audio producer based in Halifax. His work frequently touches on mental-health issues and policy.
“Don’t call the police,” my son said, over the phone, near tears, his voice sounding desperate. “The police kill people with mental illness all the time.”
His mom and I had called the police on him before.
We called them when he disappeared during a psychotic break, when he refused to comply with an involuntary hospitalization order and when he left the hospital on a temporary pass and refused to go back. We called them when he was unwell and tried to hitchhike out of the province with no money or possessions. Twice he was apprehended, and we watched him twist and struggle before police wrestled him to the ground and took him away.
“Call us, call mobile crisis or call the police non-emergency number,” was one of the first pieces of advice we got from staff at the Nova Scotia Early Psychosis Program in Halifax in 2015, when our son had just been accepted as a patient. He was 10 days away from his next appointment. Over the course of those 10 days, we called all those numbers.
We did this knowing he’d had traumatic experiences with the police in the past. In 2013, I’d watched on a livestream as he was arrested by the RCMP in New Brunswick at a protest. I saw him struggle, resisting, before being shoved into a cruiser and driven off to be charged.
That was horrifying, but it also seemed different. Surely the police who respond to people experiencing a mental-health crisis wouldn’t behave like this? I was so naive that when I first heard of wellness checks – calls for police to check on someone in crisis – I thought they were a good idea.
But police kill people during wellness checks. They kill people with mental illness, as my son said, “all the time.” And the killings of people with mental illness – particularly people of colour – continue even in the midst of global protests against police violence.
On June 20, Peel Regional police were called to a home in Mississauga for a wellness check on 62-year-old Ejaz Choudry. They shot and killed him. On June 4, police in Edmundston, N.B., killed 26-year-old Chantel Moore after a worried former boyfriend asked them to check on her. In early April, D’Andre Campbell, also 26, called Peel Regional Police for help during a mental-health crisis. They tasered him, then shot him to death. On May 27, 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death from a Toronto balcony with police in her apartment. According to her family’s lawyer, her mother had hoped police would take her to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
I see these stories flit across my social-media feeds with alarming regularity, and each time I feel a crushing sense of heartsickness.
In 2007, Nova Scotia man Howard Hyde, who lived with schizophrenia, was given repeated electric shocks by police and died. A 2010 judicial inquiry recommended that conducted energy weapons should not be used on those suffering from emotional distress, except in extreme circumstances. Yet on March 30, Halifax police used just such a weapon on a 28-year-old man harming himself, with fatal results.
Three years ago, Phil Tibbo, who heads the Early Psychosis clinic, told me police had become “a bit more appropriate” in dealing with people with mental illness. “There’s some active work that’s gone on with how they’ve changed their training.”
But when you call 911, are you going to get the cop who is trained in non-violent crisis intervention and understands people in distress? Or the cop who bursts through the door yelling and reaches for a taser or a gun?
In Halifax, we have access to a mobile crisis service. They respond with a team including a plainclothes officer. So “don’t call the police” also means “don’t call mobile crisis.”
Five years ago, when our son was diagnosed with mental illness, my partner and I were bewildered, frightened and confused. He hasn’t been in crisis for a long time. And if he ever is again, we are better equipped to reach out to him and get help.
At first, when we worried he was in danger, the police seemed like a lifeline. Now, the idea of calling them terrifies me.
Give us well-trained teams of professionals and peers who understand mental illness, who are compassionate and fluent in de-escalation techniques and non-violent communication. Who listen instead of shouting. Who don’t have weapons. Who are there just to help. Those are the people I would call.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.