Police shouldn’t be answering mental-health calls

Posted on June 25, 2020 in Health Delivery System

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials

When all you have is a hammer, goes the saying, everything looks like a nail. Likewise, when you’re armed with a gun and a taser, there’s a risk everyone else will come to look like a target.

We had more tragic evidence this week that people equipped with guns and tasers (i.e. the police) shouldn’t be the ones responding to the great majority of calls involving people in mental crisis.

These are health issues, and in the overwhelming number of cases the only person at risk is the one in crisis. There’s a stack of reports going back a decade or more recommending that health professionals and social workers, not police, respond to these calls for help. And yet, all too often, they are treated as nails to be hammered down.

This very much appears to be the case in the death last weekend of Ejaz Choudry, a 62-year-old Mississauga man suffering from schizophrenia who ended up dead after his family called a non-emergency line for assistance.

Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit is looking into the incident, and it should report quickly and publicly so the public can get a better idea of exactly what happened.

But already there’s a lot of information available, including witness video showing Peel police tactical officers breaking into the apartment where Choudry had barricaded himself alone and firing multiple shots within seconds.

According to the SIU, police also used tasers and “plastic projectiles” against Choudry, who spoke no English. His distraught family describes him as “fragile,” even aside from his mental issues, and afraid of police. It has been reported he had a kitchen knife, but since he was alone he could threaten no one but himself.

And yet police decided to storm the apartment, with deadly result. Perhaps the SIU will reveal more, but on the face of it this seems like a textbook example of how not to respond to a person in crisis.

Coming in the midst of renewed focus on police violence and a string of fatal encounters between police and racialized people, the incident is fuelling calls to get police out of such situations.

So it should. Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) put it succinctly in the wake of Choudry’s death: “Police should not be the first responders when people are in crisis in the community. Police are not trained in crisis care and should not be expected to lead this important work.”

Critics of policing have been making this point for years, hence that stack of reports. At this point, though, there’s no excuse for politicians to refuse to act. Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, whose city is policed by the Peel force, vows to look at the department’s next budget through a “different lens” following Choudry’s death, with the goal of “community safety and well-being.”

The test in Peel Region, as elsewhere, will be how much money politicians are willing to redirect from police budgets to other services. There are always problems, including the perennial question of how to handle someone in crisis who really is a threat to others. But they shouldn’t be used as an excuse for inaction.

This problem has been studied to death, and there are models elsewhere that could usefully provide direction. One that’s receiving lots of attention now is a program in Eugene, Ore., known as CAHOOTS (for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets).

It involves teams of medical professionals and crisis workers responding directly to calls involving people in mental crisis, and rarely has to resort to police backup. Out of 24,000 calls last year, CAHOOTS called for police help only 150 times.

Change is possible, but it will require determined effort by provincial governments and city councils to change the way policing is carried out. Unless that happens, all the evidence shows, people in crisis will continue to die needlessly at the hands of police.


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