People with mental disabilities fear police

Posted on November 20, 2013 in Inclusion Delivery System – Opinion/Editorials – People with mental health problems explain why they are afraid of Toronto police.
Nov 19 2013.   By Carol Goar

Not a single hand went up when Peter Bruer, the manager of conflict resolution at St. Stephen’s Community House, asked the 40 or so people in the drop-in centre how many would call 911 for help in a crisis.

Most of the participants at the lunch-hour forum on policing and mental health issues knew from personal experience how Toronto police respond to EDP (emotionally distressed person) calls. None wanted to go through it again.

“I once called the police,” Heidi said. “Three came. They handcuffed me. I was terrified. They didn’t believe me. I would never call 911 again.”

Dave stepped up to the microphone. “I was involved in a suicide attempt. Two officers came and pointed their guns at my head. They were yelling at me to drop the knife (which he had turned on himself).” The incident ended without harm, but he wouldn’t risk another such encounter.

The next speaker was Michael, who has a bipolar disorder. “I’m not a big guy,” the slight young man pointed out. “But they threw me on the floor, handcuffed me and took me to the hospital.”

Then Sharon wheeled up in her motorized scooter. She described the way police SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams go door to door inToronto Community Housing buildings, alarming tenants in a misguided attempt to reach out to those with mental disabilities.

The stories kept spilling out; some clear and focused, some confused and rambling.

Police Chief Bill Blair and police services board chair Alok Mukherjeewould have winced if they’d been there. Both men have sincerely tried to bridge the gulf between the police and Torontonians with mental disorders.

Blair set up 12 mobile crisis intervention teams — which pair a specially trained police officer with a psychiatric nurse — to de-escalate mental health crises. Mukherjee, who heads civilian oversight of the police, created a mental health subcommittee to give Torontonians with mental illness a voice in law enforcement.

Regrettably, neither man was invited. (An official from the policing standards section of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services heard about the meeting and asked to attend.)

The people at the forum acknowledged the efforts Blair and Mukherjee had made — some conceding there were good cops on the force — but they still felt vulnerable and scared. Few had ever seen a mobile crisis intervention team. (They are on call between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. and come only when they are requested by regular police.) The officers who answered their calls for help — or the 911 calls placed by friends, family members or concerned bystanders — burst into their apartments or rooming houses, barked out orders and traumatized them.

They feared they would be shot or jolted with electric current. They still fear their police records will follow them wherever they go. And they doubt things will ever change, despite the recommendations of successive coroners’ inquests, the lobbying of mental health activists and the promises of politicians and police.

Jennifer Chambers of the CAMH (Centre for Mental Health and Addiction)Empowerment Council has worked with people with mental health disabilities for 20 years, testifying at inquests and acting as a bridge between clients of the mental health system and the institutions that are supposed to serve them.

“Police are like other people,” she said. “They have a bias against members of our community. Their training is not actually bad, but there’s a disconnect on the street.”

Former mayor John Sewell, founder of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, is less tolerant. He maintains that aggression, intimidation and the use of force are so deeply ingrained in police culture that front-line officers will keep using the same tactics no matter how deleterious the results. He wants the police to send out mobile crisis teams to all calls involving persons in mental/emotional distress. He has been unable to persuade Blair or Mukherjee to try this expensive approach.

People with mental health problems don’t know what the solution is. They dare not complain for fear of retribution. (That is why they’re identified only by first name in this article.) They are too stigmatized to seek public support.

They just wish law enforcement authorities would try to understand they’re not malevolent and defiant. They’re sick and scared.

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