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Toronto police push out encampment supporters as they clear the Lamport Stadium Park homeless encampment in Toronto on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris YoungChris Young/The Canadian Press

Lisa Deveau is a former officer with the Ottawa Police Service. She has a master’s degree in social work.

I remember when my professor first said that policing was “a set-up job.” I didn’t understand what that meant at the time – but eventually, I saw the truth in the phrase, especially when it came to the issue of excessive use of force.

Over my five years as a police officer, I often found myself the target of criticism and an outlet for people’s anger about the issue. I understood where they were coming from. But I did not completely understand why so much of it was being directed at officers on the ground and, in my opinion, so little of it at the institution and leaders in policing who oversee training.

Every year, I would receive use-of-force training, which teaches officers how to effectively use batons, OC (pepper) spray, firearms and conducted-energy weapons such as tasers. But on a day-to-day basis, I found that most of my calls for service involved marginalized communities and people with mental-health or substance-abuse issues.

Many of the calls I responded to were around mental-health related concerns – situations where empathetic de-escalation and communication, not force, served me best. And yet, I feel I didn’t receive adequate mental-health and de-escalation training that could teach me how to identify mental illness and how to use effective communication. Without such training, I did not have the ability to gauge whether my approach, tone or technique was agitating or calming to someone.

So, while I was completing my master’s degree in social work, I designed a course that looked at how police forces, in North America, trained officers specifically around de-escalation and mental health. After considerable research, I discovered that police only need to use force (including but not limited to firearm discharge) 2 per cent of the time; in the remaining 98 per cent, there was either no authority to use force or it was not required.

Further, a Canadian study completed by the CBC found that more than 70 per cent of fatal encounters with police, between 2000 and 2017, involved a person experiencing a mental-health crisis and/or under the influence of a substance. In some cities, mental health accounts for up to 30 per cent of the calls for service, and this is only increasing, according to Statistics Canada.

When I researched 20 urban and rural police services of varied sizes in Canada (mostly in Ontario), I found that half of them offered little or no de-escalation and mental-health training, and it was usually not mandatory. I found that there were highly discretionary choices made around how officers were trained on such skills, even though training for use of force – something that is not often required on the job – is mandatory and administered annually.

Most officers likely did not get into the job to be mental-health professionals, but in many ways, that is the reality. Candidates who apply for policing and are subsequently recruited bring with them varied experiences and education, but a social services/mental-health background is not required. If they are not offered de-escalation and mental-health training on the job, how are they supposed to demonstrate the skills that citizens expect?

In addition to better training, interdisciplinary teams – where mental-health professionals accompany police on calls – can be a useful option. Such mobile crisis teams already exist in a small number of forces and they assign a psychiatric nurse or registered social worker with an officer, usually in a cruiser, to respond to 911 mental-health emergencies. Research has shown how effective these teams can be in de-escalating and connecting individuals to the help they might need, and how taxpayers can benefit from a more efficient allocation of police resources.

Police officers deserve appropriate training, and adequate resources from the services that employ them. However, if we hope to see real change among police services, we need to advocate for it through the government officials who mandate training.

In Ontario, section 3(2)(d) of the Police Services Act states that the Solicitor-General is responsible for “programs to enhance professional police practices, standards and training.” This is accomplished through the Policing Standards Manual, which mandates and emphasizes use-of-force training: prioritizing tactical communication, handcuffing and searching people, including handgun retention. More emphasis needs to be placed on de-escalation and mental health.

There are many advocacy groups working to improve and standardize training for officers, including the Coalition of Canadian Police Reform. Coalitions such as these aim to advocate for both police and the public to ultimately improve relationships – an effort that should include providing officers the best training possible, to ensure that no one feels set up to fail.

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