Michael Eligon. Sylvia Klibingaitis. Charlie McGillivary. All three had mental health issues or an intellectual disability. All three were killed during altercations with the Toronto Police in the past eight months.
Former Toronto mayor John Sewell says their deaths were preventable and this pattern of violence is unacceptable. At Thursday's meeting of the police services board, he will give a deputation urging a complete overhaul of officer training in order to create a "new breed" of cop capable of dealing with the mentally ill without resorting to violence.
He has the support of mental health advocates and community groups, who before the meeting will stage a demonstration against police violence outside TPS headquarters at 12:30 pm. In memory of Eligon, who was shot shortly after escaping the Toronto East General Hospital, protesters will wear hospital gowns.
"Training has to be totally redone," says Sewell, who is now head of the Police Accountability Coaltion. "Police are not trained appropriately to deal with people who are in a mental crisis. Police are trained to go in and control any situation, and give orders. That just enflames a situation where someone is in a mental crisis."
Sewell argues that officer training should focus on de-escalation, rather than subduing subjects through force, a tactic that he says can provoke unpredictable reactions in people suffering mental problems. "You have to get away from this control model," he says.
The TPS has policies for handling people in mental crises. Following the 1996 death of Edmund Yu, a homeless man who had gone off his medication and was fatally shot by police on a TTC bus, the force instituted additional training and developed Mobile Crisis Intervention units.
The two-person teams consist of a plain clothes officer and mental health nurse, and they have proven effective.
But unlike in nearby cities like Hamilton, in Toronto MCI's are not used as first responders. They are also only available in some police divisions and are off duty between 11 pm and 1 pm. Often, Sewell says, by the time they arrive on the scene, it's too late.
He wants the MCI program expanded throughout the city and to all hours of the day, as a stop-gap measure until the training overhaul takes effect.
Three or four people with mental disabilities are killed by Toronto police each year (a police spokesperson did not return NOW's calls for this story). McGillivary, a non-verbal 45-year-old man, died last August when police tackled him on Bloor St. West after he failed to respond to officers' questions about a nearby robbery. Two months later Klibingaltis, a 52-year old with a history of mental illness, was shot by an officer responding to a 911 call she herself had placed. She was wielding a knife at the time.
Those incidents provoked public outcry, but Eligon's recent death has further galvanized community reaction.
On February 2, the 29-year-old man was shot to death by police in East York after escaping from Toronto East General Hospital, where he had been admitted involuntarily for a mental health evaluation. Local residents watched in horror as Eligon, who was in obvious distress and wielding two pairs of scissors, was gunned down by police.
One of those witnesses was Douglas Pritchard, who was out running with his dog when he saw Eligon get killed. He'll be among the protesters Thursday, and says witnessing the shooting convinced him there needs to be systematic change on the force.
"On that day, I didn't see any attempt to use de-escalation," he says. "Officers were yelling at this man. They didn't use pepper spray, they didn't use batons, they didn't try to knock him to the ground. There was an immediate resort to lethal force."
"Whatever the police are doing, it's not working," Pritchard says. "People are still dying, and that's not acceptable."