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Since 2000, more than 40 "mentally disturbed" people have been shot to death during encounters with police – and that's just in Ontario.

Millions of dollars have been spent, and vast forests have been razed to produce reports on how to stop this carnage, and the conclusions are always the same: Police have to be better trained, they have to be patient and they have to respond to sick people in crisis with compassion, not bullets.

The most recent set of recommendations in this vein come from a coroner's inquest into the death of Michael MacIsaac.

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When police responded to a 911 call about a domestic disturbance in the wee hours of Dec. 2, 2013, they found him naked, screaming and brandishing a table leg. Twelve seconds after arriving on the scene, the responding officer shot Mr. MacIsaac twice in the chest.

This kind of tragic scene has repeated itself, time and time again, over the years. Forty per cent of people shot to death are mentally ill, not criminals. A few examples that made headlines:

  • 1997, Edmond Yu, alone on a bus, holding a small hammer;
  • 2004, O’Brien Christopher-Reid, refused to drop the knife in his hand;
  • 2008, Byron Debassige, holding a three-inch knife;
  • 2009, Douglas Minty, armed with a pocket knife;
  • 2012, Michael Eligon, carrying two pairs of scissors, still in the gown from the hospital from which he escaped;
  • 2013, Sammy Yatim, on an empty Toronto streetcar, waving a small knife;
  • 2015, Andrew Loku, in his apartment hallway, holding a hammer.

One cannot help but empathize with the police officers involved. After all, they were following their training to the letter.

Police are taught to respond to threatening individuals by drawing their weapons and yelling commands; they are supposed to exert authority and establish control, and end situations quickly.

That's a good approach with a bank robber or when raiding a bikers' den, but it doesn't work when someone is experiencing a psychotic break or is suicidal.

Sick, scared people need to be calmed down, not agitated.

Police need to practice de-escalation tactics – talking, waiting people out, offering help.

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"Once an officer's gun is drawn [in a confrontation with someone in crisis], it is a short step to a deadly conclusion," Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé wrote in his 2016 report A Matter of Life or Death, which stressed the importance of de-escalation.

He drew a lot of flack when he said, more bluntly, that police get plenty of training on how to use their guns, but not enough on how to use their mouths.

But he's right.

Police have an unenviable job. One of their most common and difficult tasks is dealing with people with untreated mental illness and addiction.

Toronto Police respond to almost 25,000 "person in crisis" calls annually; Vancouver Police handle 30,000. (Why so many mentally ill people are on the streets and in prison, and not in care is a topic for another day.)

Police handle the vast majority of these encounters with kindness and professionalism. But when the threat of violence arises – and let's not forget that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent – things too often go sideways.

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When someone brandishes a hammer, scissors or a table leg, they suddenly get treated like a violent criminal instead of a gravely ill person.

No one is suggesting that police stand there and allow themselves to be stabbed or beaten. De-escalation training teaches that not drawing a weapon in the first place can prevent the threats; offering help instead of screaming "drop the weapon," can change an interaction.

Mental-health calls are so frequent that many police forces now employ crisis intervention teams that include unarmed social workers, backed up by police who carry shields and tasers instead of guns.

The main thing they do differently is take their time. If a man stands naked in his driveway yelling for an hour before being taken to hospital, so what? Isn't that better than shooting him?

As former judge Frank Iacobucci wrote in his exhaustive 2014 report Police Encounters With People in Crisis, the "target should be zero deaths when police interact with the public."

That's a realistic goal, but won't be achieved unless police are trained differently. That's not an academic issue. It is, to borrow from the title of the Ontario Ombudsman's report, literally a matter of life and death.

Geneticist Stephen Scherer says that Canada's medical expertise should be focused on a moonshot to surmount mental health issues. With advances in our understanding of the brain, Scherer says now is the ideal time to stake a claim on the future to help the one-in-five Canadians who will be affected by mental health issues in their lifetimes.
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