Inquest says one agency should oversee Ontario’s mental health services

TheGlobeandMail.com – National/Ontario
Published Friday, Oct. 08, 2010.  Adrian Morrow

Ontario must do a better job of sharing records on mentally ill people between agencies and create a single organization to co-ordinate all mental health and addiction services, a coroner’s inquest into the police shooting of a schizophrenic man has ruled.

The inquest into the Feb. 2008 death of 28-year-old Byron Debassige delivered its findings Friday in the form of 15 recommendations designed to improve the province’s mental health system which, it was told, had allowed the young man to slip through the cracks in the months before he was killed by police in a Toronto park.

The inquest jury, however, opted not to recommend a single change to police training or tactics when dealing with the mentally ill.

Over the course of two weeks of testimony, jurors heard Mr. Debassige was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his teens and had abused alcohol and drugs over the years. He did stretches in prison and, out on parole in the months prior to his death, had stopped taking his medication and missed doctors’ appointments.

On the night of Feb. 16, he walked into a Yonge Street convenience store and stole a couple of lemons and pulled out a knife in front of store clerks. Two police officers, Constables John Tanner and Bradley Coutts, confronted him in Oriole Park, near the Davisville subway station. When he brandished the knife and advanced towards them, they shot him dead.

The lack of long-term care for Mr. Debassige, coupled with the fact that those assigned to help him didn’t have access to enough information on him, left the troubled man without enough support to get back on his feet, said Barry Swadron, a lawyer representing the family.

One of Mr. Debassige’s roommates testified that police brought him home one night a few weeks before he died, after they said they found him sniffing glue. If his probation officer had been told about the incident or had known the young man was missing doctors’ appointments, he could have intervened to help, Mr. Swadron said.

“We had a lot of people testifying that they didn’t know this, they didn’t know that,” he said outside court. “We had a probation officer who testified at this inquest that, as far as he knew, everything was fine.”

Mr. Swadron said he was disappointed the inquest didn’t recommend police overhaul their training practices regarding the use of their weapons. He had argued at the inquest that officers could have talked Mr. Debassige down rather than opening fire.

The officers themselves, however, testified that their lives were in danger and they had no option but to shoot.

“The problems pre-existed the encounter in Oriole Park,” said Joseph Markson, the officers’ lawyer, who said the jury’s recommendations may help keep mentally ill people from encountering police. “Nonetheless, there are occasions – and this was one of them – where the police are forced to act to protect themselves and others.”

Among the jury’s recommendations, which were directed to the Ministries of Health and Community Safety, were that the province should assess the need for more supportive housing for those with mental illnesses and addictions, fund more psychiatric care in the community and assess the caseloads of probation officers.

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