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Jury recommends de-escalation in police confrontations with the mentally ill

TORONTO - When police encounter an emotionally disturbed person officers should put more emphasis on defusing the situation through communication, particularly if those people don't respond to shouted police commands, a coroner's jury recommended Wednesday.

The suggestion is one of dozens of recommendations put forward by a five-member jury in an inquest into the deaths of three mentally ill Toronto residents who were shot by police. Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klibingaitis and Michael Eligon were all gunned down after approaching officers with knives or scissors.

Police should "maximize emphasis on verbal de-escalation techniques" in their training, the jury recommended.

"If the EDP (emotionally disturbed person) has failed to respond to standard initial police commands, ie "Stop. Police," "Police. Don't move," and/or "Drop the weapon," train officers to stop shouting those commands and attempt different defusing communication strategies," the jury recommended.

"Train officers in such situations to co-ordinate amongst themselves so that one officer takes the lead in communicating with the EDP and multiple officers are not all shouting commands."

Representatives of the families of the people at the centre of the inquest picked up on the shouting-related recommendations as ones that could have made a difference in the situations involving their loved ones.

"If de-escalation and more distance and time was provided to Sylvia as opposed to the immediate withdrawing of the gun and the immediate screaming to my sister Sylvia, that could have perhaps saved her life," said Klibingaitis' sister Anita Wasowicz.

Peter Rosenthal, the lawyer for Eligon's family, said it was a similar situation for Eligon.

"There were a number of officers just yelling at him the standard commands and they should have tried something else," he said. "If they had tried something else he might well be alive today."

The president of the Toronto Police Association was on hand for the jury's recommendations, and while he said his officers are open to anything that improves police and community relations, they already do try to de-escalate such situations.

"Could it be better? Yes. We can always look for improvement," said Mike McCormack. "But right now that's how we do respond. Our officers do not want to use lethal force unless we absolutely have to, so we de-escalate and try to maintain that de-escalation for as long as we can."

There is not only one solution, said Jennifer Chambers, co-ordinator of the mental-health organization the Empowerment Council, but communication at all levels can help.

"(The jury) recommended that there be more funding to mental health crisis services so that people get interrupted before they get into contact with police and I think that dealing with people's crises before they come into contact with police is the real solution," she said.

"They recommend that the Toronto Police Service work more closely with people with direct experience with mental health issues. I think that could change everything."

The Canadian Mental Health Association welcomed the jury's focus on improving police training.

"We've been working with police services across Ontario and frontline officers have indicated they would like to receive more training on how to approach a situation involving a person having a mental health crisis," said Camille Quenneville,CEO of the association's Ontario division.

"We feel de-escalation remains the best way to ensure everyone's safety in these situations."

The inquest heard that when an officer is faced with an individual advancing with a sharp object, their response is based on the person's behaviour and not their mental state.

The jury recommends training officers to take into account whether a person is in crisis and all relevant information about their condition, not just their behaviour, and refraining from shooting for as long as possible.

It also suggested police consider further use of in-car cameras, body armour that provides officers greater protection from edged weapons, body-worn camera technology for front-line officers and shields to disarm and control people with edged weapons.

The jury stopped short of recommending increased Taser use, suggesting it be studied to see "if there are any special risks or concerns associated with the use of this device on EDPs."

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services already announced in August that it was authorizing the expanded deployment of Tasers in Ontario, though police forces would have to foot the bill. Tasers cost about $1,500 each.

Coroner David Eden said the jury, through their recommendations, spoke "eloquently" of the need "not only for police, but for all of us to contribute towards understanding and accommodating the reality of mental illness in our community."

"I think it's clear to those of us who heard the evidence all three were gentle, intelligent, loving human beings making lives for themselves and that their behaviour on the days of their deaths was entirely uncharacteristic of them and could not have been predicted by them, by their families or by anyone else," Eden said.

"This is the tragedy of mental illness."

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