Mental health advocates have high hopes for new inquest following three police shootings in a year and a half.
It's a shocking stat: three people with mental health issues shot dead by Toronto police in the span of 18 months. Something's terribly wrong, and now the Ontario coroner's office wants to get to the bottom of it.
Last week, the office announced it was launching an inquest into the deaths of Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klibingaitis and Michael Eligon, who were all killed in standoffs with officers.
No date for the inquest has been set, but when it's concluded the coroner is expected to make recommendations on how police are trained to deal with what the force terms "emotionally distressed persons."
And once again, Toronto's mental health community is on high alert, eager to press the point that officers are under-equipped for this aspect of their work.
Anita Szigeti, a lawyer and mental health advocate, is cautiously optimistic that because the probe will examine more than one incident at the same time, there will be more impetus for systemic change.
"We've had decades of individual inquests into similar deaths. Despite those, and despite strong recommendations coming out of each of them, these unfortunate tragedies continue to occur," Szigeti says.
Key to any changes in police policy, she says, will be finding ways for officers and people suffering mental health problems to interact outside of crisis situations. She believes the three recent deaths were partly fuelled by mutual fear and distrust between cops and people in the mental health system, a problem that will only be exacerbated by the trio of shootings.
"It's a fear on both sides," she says.
"The general public holds a lot of prejudice toward people from the mental health system, and police are members of that public and presumably hold many of the same prejudices," says Jennifer Chambers, coordinator of the Empowerment Council, an organization representing patients at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. The group is seeking standing at the coroner's inquest.
"The research shows that the best way to address prejudice is to have actual contact with the people about whom they hold these stereotypes," Chambers says.
Some of that has already been accomplished, thanks to the Police Services Board. In response to the death of Otto Vass at the hands of four officers in 2000, the board established a standing sub-committee on mental health which includes psychiatric survivors and experts.
In April the board also ordered an internal review of policy on interactions with the mentally ill; that review is still ongoing.
"We want to get to the safest situation for everyone, and we'll cooperate with anyone who is moving in that direction," says police spokesperson Mark Pugash.
"It would be incredibly arrogant to suggest there's no room for improvement or no lessons to be learned."
He points out that people with personal experience in the mental health system help design the relevant parts of the curriculum for the mandatory recertification program all officers must take every year, and speak directly to cops as part of their retraining.
Strategies to de-escalate interactions with people in psychological distress form "one of the largest chunks" of the two-day program, says Pugash.
While mental health advocates have praised these efforts, Szigeti says other police forces have done more. In response to the killing of Joseph Dewayne Robinson in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1987, that city's police department created crisis intervention teams (CITs) of specially trained officers that are first on the scene for calls involving people in psychiatric distress. The force has seen significant decreases not only in unnecessary arrests of people facing mental health challenges, but also of injuries to officers.
CIT officers undergo 40 hours of instruction that includes visits to mental health facilities and intensive personal interactions with psychiatric survivors. Szigeti says that face-to-face contact is invaluable.
"Getting these two communities together to decrease the fear - that is critical in our view," she says.
Toronto has its own crisis intervention program, two-person teams consisting of an officer and a mental health nurse. But because the nurses aren't trained in police tactics, Toronto's CITs are never used as first responders. And they operate in only 11 police divisions and are available only between 1 and 11 pm, because the nurses, supplied by local hospitals, are in short supply.
Some activists have insisted that these teams need to play a first-on-the-scene role.
Pugash says the force wants to expand the CITs throughout the city but has no plan at this time to use them as first responders.