Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

"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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies