“Police have become the mental healthy agency of first resort when they should be the last,” said Vancouver Police Department Chief Jim Chu (retired) at a National Police conference in 2014.
Chief Chu had tremendous insight.
When I opened my email yesterday I received an interesting request. I was asked to promote a CBC documentary called, “Hold Your Fire,” a televised special presentation examining Police use of deadly force involving people suffering a mental health crisis.
I have always seen the issue as an important topic for conversation.
As a former Tactical Team member and Homicide Unit Supervisor, tasked with investigating Police Involved shootings, the issue is squarely in my wheelhouse.
I didn’t need much encouragement to spread the news among my former colleagues in Law Enforcement, Police Insider readers and friends on social media.
I was determined to keep an open mind despite feedback I received from some of my less enthusiastic peers;
“When the state news agency for Canada’s left advertises a doc called “Hold Your Fire,” I kinda doubt it’ll be about how great Canadian cops are at exercising restraint before shooting. More likely to be about cultural flaws and how much better its done somewhere else, usually a Scandinavian place, sorry for the cynicism.”
My colleague’s point wasn’t lost on me, but nonetheless, I was determined to remain objective.
I also appreciated the CBC’s interest in receiving feedback on their story.
The show aired last night at 9:00 pm.
I watched it, slept on it and watched it again this morning at 5:00 am. The second time I watched it I took detailed notes.
The documentary centres on five (5) high-profile fatal Police shootings involving victims who suffered from some form of mental heath issue.
The cases explored were;
- Obrien Christopher-Reid (26) – 2004
- Paul Boyd (39) – 2007
- Michael Eligon (29) – 2012
- Michael MacIsaac (47) – 2013
- Sammy Yatim (18) – 2013
Interesting enough, I previously conducted analysis and wrote two detailed accounts of the shootings of Yatim and MacIsaac.
It should be noted, TPS Constable James Forcillo stands charged with 2nd degree murder and attempt murder in the Yatim case. At the time of writing, the jury is deliberating and a decision will be forthcoming.
The documentary goes to great lengths to humanize the victims of these shootings.
I wouldn’t ordinarily take issue with these efforts, after all, these were human beings.
In some cases, the characterizations appeared to be designed to influence the audience to conclude the victims were non-violent people thereby inferring any force used against them could be considered excessive or unreasonable.
For example, Sammy Yatim was described as, “A student from a middle class family, he had no criminal record, no history of violence.”
In reality, Yatim’s behaviour was bizarre, he was armed with a deadly weapon (knife) that he was brandishing in a threatening manner.
The fact he had no criminal record and no history of violence is not relevant to any Law Enforcement Officer forced to deal with him.
Ultimately, the jury will decide.
I speak with authority when I tell you there are no winners in these kinds of cases. The surviving family members on the victim side of the equation are devastated and often completely left in the dark by Special Investigations Units.
The information vacuum causes stress, anger, hostility and creates suspicion and mistrust.
The involved Officers are often devastated and many of them suffer severe emotional trauma and post traumatic stress. Police Officers accept the fact the use of deadly force is part of their job but no Officer wants to have to use that level of force against a fellow human being suffering from a mental health crisis.
I have tremendous empathy for the surviving family members and the Officers involved in these tragic events.
The Central Theme
Within the first two minutes the central theme of the documentary becomes clear.
The narrator provides statistics that show seventy-two (72) people in crisis were shot by Police between 2004 – 2014. This represents almost 40% of all police involved shootings.
The narrator suggests, “Always at the core there seems to be excessive use of force against people in crisis.”
The bold statement undoubtedly influences the audience, but is the suggestion true?
Are Police Officers “always” using excessive for against people suffering a mental health crisis?
It’s important to note Independent Special Investigations Units were assigned to investigate all five of the noted shootings. Four (4) of the investigations concluded the Police Officers were justified in their use of deadly force.
Independent Special Investigation Units employ highly trained, experienced investigators with expertise specific to Police Officer use of force.
They are not writers, journalists or documentarians.
I’ll leave it to the reader to conclude who is better suited to assess Police Officer use of force.
One of my great disappointments in the documentary were the writer’s intentional minimization of certain facts.
On February 3, 2012, Michael Eligon (29) was a patient at a Toronto Hospital where he had been taken by Police for a mental health assessment.
Approximately thirty-six (36) hours later, he left the hospital before receiving any treatment. At the time he left the hospital he was clad in a blue hospital gown.
The “Hold Your Fire” writer characterized the events that followed;
“Elgin walks into a convenience store, grabs two pairs of scissors and gets into a “tussle” with the owner over payment resulting in a cut to the man’s hand.”
In reality, what occurred was a theft, followed by violence. In the Canadian criminal code these elements constitute the offence of Robbery.
In fairness, the Officers dispatched to the call were not sent to a “tussle,” in fact, they were dispatched to a stabbing, a high priority dangerous incident.
The same event was described by National Post crime reporter Christie Blatchford as follows;
“There, after 36 hours with no treatment and only a blue hospital gown to show for his efforts, he had walked out of the joint, marched to a nearby convenience store, stole the scissors and, when the shopkeeper politely attempted to dissuade him, promptly stabbed him in the hand.”
“Thus armed, clad only in his gown, black socks and a toque, Mr. Eligon then tried to carjack a woman and was prowling the east end neighbourhood, apparently looking for houses to break into.”
So, why the need for minimization?
It demonstrates intent to manipulate the facts to influence the audience to adopt a certain mindset or theory.
The Ontario SIU investigated Eligon’s death and concluded, “The subject officer was justified in using lethal force against Mr. Eligon.”
The report indicates just before being shot, Eligon stated, “One of you is going to die.” He made these comments as he rapidly advanced on uniform Patrol Officers in the middle of an East York street while still armed with two pairs of scissors.
Facts that were overlooked in the documentary.
The Michael MacIssac Shooting
The minimization didn’t end with the Eligon case.
On December 2, 2013, Michael MacIsaac (47) was shot and killed by a Durham Regional Police Officer.
Michael had been diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition that affects the areas of the brain that control memory and behaviour. The day before he died MacIsaac was running a fever, appeared dazed and had no appetite.
That morning, Michael bolted out of his home, naked and in near zero degree temperatures, with no shoes or socks on his feet. As he ran about the neighbourhood the inevitable 911 calls were made and Police responded.
The “Hold Your Fire” writer described the events that followed;
“Next Michael picks up a piece of patio furniture and pounds on Shelly’s door apparently trying to get in. He’s still holding a piece of it when Police arrive.”
Unfortunately, the magnitude of the events were grossly understated.
The “piece of patio furniture” the writer refers to was a three (3) foot piece of wrought iron table leg MacIsaac broke off a patio table.
When I watched the video I was taken aback by the sound of the heavy wrought iron table leg striking the roadway when the officer moved it out of MacIsaac’s reach.
The table leg could only be described as a potential deadly weapon.
In their findings the SIU wrote;
“The subject officer exited his vehicle and was making his way to the rear driver’s side when he saw Mr. MacIsaac approaching him holding one of the metal table legs in a threatening fashion. The officer drew his firearm, pointed it at Mr. MacIsaac and ordered him to stop and drop the weapon. Mr. MacIsaac continued to advance towards the officer, prompting the subject officer to shoot twice.”
The SIU report indicates MacIsaac was within a range of 5 – 7 feet when the shots were fired.
Again, why the need for minimization?
Not discouraged by the facts, the narrator suggests;
“There seems to be a disconnect between progressive police policy around people in crisis and the average cops inability to sometimes to hold their fire.”
And while the image of a naked Michael MacIsaac running down a sidewalk is flashed on the screen the narrator pontificates;
“Even when the person’s vulnerabilities couldn’t be more obvious.”
The suggestion, of course, is the shooting of Michael MacIssac was not justified because he was a naked man running in the streets in crisis.
The fact he was an agitated, unpredictable man in possession of a deadly weapon closing distance on Police Officers is somehow irrelevant.
Justified or not, the shooting was no less tragic and heartbreaking for the MacIsaac family.
The Use of Force
The use of force dialogue in the documentary centered on edged weapons and became absurd at times.
“The 21 foot rule got into officers heads, particularly problematic when running along side another piece of common training dogma, lethal force is an officers only reliable defence against a knife or other edged weapon,” the narrator suggests.
In reality, trained Police Officers know there are several less than lethal options possible when it comes to an edged weapon attack. Officers could deploy a taser, pepper spray, bean bag rounds or use baton strikes under certain circumstances.
(These less than lethal force options should only be considered in certain situations and only with a deadly force option.)
The story then shifts to retired TPS Sergeant Steve Summerville who demonstrates hand to hand edged weapon defensive techniques using oversized rubber knives.
In my respectful opinion, any Police Officer, who doesn’t happen to be a martial arts expert or an expert in hand to hand defensive edged weapon techniques would be absolutely insane to try to disarm a knife wielding suspect.
Front line Officers simply do not have the kind of skill set required to disarm a knife wielding suspect with empty hand control tactics. Any attempt to do so would have disastrous consequences.
Enter the absurd part.
The documentary shifts to the United Kingdom and features a video taped confrontation between Police Officers and a machete wielding man in a mental health crisis.
In one instance, an Officer attempts to disarm the man with a baton while the subject attacks another Officer who uses a “rollo bin” to fend off the attacker.
The deranged man chases Police Officers around parked cars until back up arrives with twenty or so “public order shields” (riot shields) that are used to overwhelm and disarm the man.
The documentary appears to celebrate the less than lethal result.
The difficulty is the Officers depicted in the video are extremely lucky they weren’t seriously injured or killed by the crazed attacker. I can assure you, “luck” is not an intelligent less than lethal force option.
After conducting internet research I found over a dozen incidents where UK Police Officers were killed in the line of duty by edged weapon attacks. In some cases, the killers were subjects with mental health issues.
Ironically, in one case, the Officer was killed in a machete attack.
The Winnipeg Police Service, however, has not lost an Officer in the line of duty for over 46 years. (1970)
As a final insult the narrator speaks to the Law Enforcement community;
“Remember the person in crisis could be someone you love.”
The inference, of course, is Police don’t humanize people in these deadly force encounters thus making it easier for cops to pull that trigger.
In reality, Police are trained to deal with a deadly threat using as much force is as reasonably necessary. Police Officers are held to that standard and are accountable for any excessive use of force.
These are life and death decisions that often happen in a fraction of a second. Decisions that are analyzed in sterile environments by Judges and Lawyers for days, weeks and months and sometimes, years.
As disappointed as I was with the content and angle taken in the documentary, I appreciate the importance of the subject and the need for continued discussion.
Police can and must do better when it comes to dealing with people in a mental heath crisis.
Less than lethal force options must be made more readily available to front line officers.
Police Officers need more mental health education and training.
I found it interesting, however, that the heart of the issue was identified very early in the documentary but was essentially ignored thereafter.
Chief Psychiatrist Bill MacEwan of St Pauls Hospital in British Columbia calls it the “$2,500 office visit” and breaks it down for us;
- $800 – Police intervention
- $800 – Ambulance Service
- $900 – Short stay in Emergency
He then sums it up;
“That’s a lot of wasted heath resources. We should try to treat them before the crisis.”
That brings me to my final thought…
People employed in the Health Care Industry (Mental Health, Housing, Social Assistance, Family Services) generally outnumber Police Officers at a ratio of around 20 – 1.
Doesn’t it stand to reason Police Officers should never be the mental health agency of first resort.
Sadly, “Hold Your Fire” was a missed opportunity to have a more meaningful discussion.
UK Officers Killed in Edged Weapon Attacks
Police Constable Jonathon Charles Henry (36) died June 11, 2007 after being fatally stabbed attempting to arrest a paranoid schizophrenic knife wielding suspect attacking the public in Luton.
Detective Michael Swindells (44) died May 21, 2004 after being stabbed to death attempt arrest of violent paranoid schizophrenic suspect.
Detective Stephen Robin Oake (40) died January 14, 2003 after being fatally stabbed by a suspect.
Constable Nina Alexandra Mackay (25) died on October 24, 1997 after being stabbed to death by a paranoid schizophrenic man she was attempting to arrest. She is the only female police officer in Great Britain to have been stabbed to death in the line of duty.
Constable George Pickburn Hammond (58) died December 13, 1995 after being stabbed to death in the line of duty.
Detective John Carnie Robertson (39) died February 9, 1994 after being stabbed to death in the line of duty.
Constable Lewis George Fulton (28) died June 17, 1994 after being stabbed to death in the line of duty. (Strathclyde Police)
Sergeant William Forth (34) died March 21, 1993 after being fatally stabbed during a disturbance call.
Constable Alan Derek King (41) died November 29, 1991 after being fatally stabbed in the line of duty.
Constable James Morrison (26) died December 13, 1991 after being fatally stabbed in the line of duty.
Constable Roger Brereton (41) died August 19, 1987 after being shot to death in his police car pursuing a “berserk” gunman at Hungerford.
Constable William Fordham (45) died January 26, 1985 after being stabbed to death in the line of duty.
Constable Keith Henry Blakelock (40) died October 6, 1985 after being stabbed to death by an angry mob who attacked with machetes and edged weapons. He was found with a 6″ knife fully buried in his neck.
Constable William Ross Hunt (56) died June 5, 1983 after being stabbed to death in the line of duty. (Strathclyde Police)
Constable John Egerton (20) died March 11, 1982 after being stabbed to death in the line of duty.
Sergeant Michael Hawcroft (31) died March 12, 1981 after being stabbed to death by a suspect during an arrest.