I was a witness to the killing of mental patient Michael Eligon by Toronto police. So I was called to testify at the coroner’s inquest into the death of Eligon and two others who were in mental health crisis. Final submissions from parties with standing at the three-month inquest concluded this week. A jury will now make its recommendations. What will come out of it?
Police, for their part, seem for the first time open to wearing lapel cameras, albeit not so much to keep police in check as to guard against possible legal action against them. Meanwhile, serious questions on the circumstances surrounding Eligon’s death remain unanswered.
1) In January 2012, Eligon was staying in a “safe bed” house for people with mental illnesses. On February 1 his ability to care for himself declined, and police took him to Toronto East General Hospital. It was nearby, but no one knew him there. He wanted to go to St. Joseph’s Health Centre, where he was known and had been cared for over several years.
There was no secure unit at East General at the time or bed available. Consequently, he was left in the emergency department for two nights. He didn’t seem to be eating and was uncommunicative. Testimony revealed that he was moved from a bed to a chair on the second night. He asked for a lawyer. An hour later, he walked out of the hospital. Would better care have prevented this?
Hospital physicians testified to giving Eligon an antipsychotic drug and a sedative when he was admitted and described Eligon as paranoid. His own psychiatrist of six years, however, testified that Eligon suffered from body dysmorphic disorder, a condition that made him believe that he had bad body odour and a disfigured face. And that she had only ever prescribed antidepressants from time to time.
2) Eligon took two pairs of scissors from a nearby shop. The shopkeeper tried to retrieve them, and a scuffle ensued. He called 911, saying he had been “stabbed.” At the inquest, he testified that he didn’t actually know whether he had been cut deliberately or by accident as he wrestled with Eligon to get the scissors back. Video from the store’s security camera that caught the altercation was somehow damaged in the course of the investigation by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the civilian watchdog that probes incidents of death or serious injury involving police.
The inquest also heard that Eligon approached a woman who was parking her car on the street and “whispered” a request for her car keys. There was a 30-second encounter. She screamed and kicke√d him and he left. She called 911. The call-taker reported this incident to police as an “attempted car-jacking.”
Eligon then wandered through backyards on Milverton Boulevard. He asked one homeowner for his house keys, was refused and left. This was transmitted to police as an “attempted break-in.” Hearing these calls, police assumed that this escapee was very dangerous and “on a rampage.”
But when police found him in a backyard, wearing only a hospital gown and socks and carrying scissors, he seemed “confused and disoriented.” Should police have then reviewed their initial assessment of the danger level?
3) The half a dozen officers who arrived on Milverton formed no plan. They testified that what training they had in de-escalation or mental health was not relevant here, only that Eligon was now “advancing towards them with an edged weapon.”
Virtually all of them began shouting, “Drop the weapon,” although their training says that only one officer should engage the subject verbally. When Eligon did not comply with this command, one officer shouted, “Shoot him,” while another yelled, “Back up” to the others, to create more space. What message did Eligon hear, if any?
Why did they not try another approach? There was no guarantee that pepper spray would be effective, police testified. And using a baton would have meant getting close to Eligon.
4) The officers backed up as Eligon walked toward them. Then the least experienced officer suddenly opened fire. He testified that Eligon had said, “One of you is gonna die,” but of all the other officers present, only one testified to also hearing this he was the one with whom the shooter left the scene in a cruiser, in direct violation of the SIU-police protocol that subject and witness officers be immediately separated to avoid the possibility of collusion. Why was this allowed by the superior officer on the scene, who granted permission?
5) Some officers said they were reluctant to fire their weapons for fear of hitting another officer. Were there too many officers on this narrow street? Officers knew that the canine unit and a sergeant with a taser were on their way. Could they have waited for their arrival? This question was never satisfactorily answered.
Officers replied that they had to stop Eligon or he might harm civilians. Yet two of the three shots fired missed Eligon and hit a porch and a garbage can. Were these stray bullets more dangerous than what Eligon might have done next?
6) Will this inquest reduce the chances of such a tragedy occurring again?
There have been several inquests into the police shooting deaths of mentally ill people. Despite these recurrences, police training has not substantively changed.
Perhaps the much more widely- viewed police shooting death of Sammy Yatim last summer will change that. There may be hope on this front. Staff for Frank Iacobucci, the retired Supreme Court justice tapped back in August by Chief Bill Blair to probe the circumstances surrounding the Yatim shooting, were present in the public gallery at this inquest.
Doug Pritchard is a peace and justice advocate with the Mennonite Church and with Christian Peacemakers.