Have you ever observed a schizophrenic person walking down the street, fully engrossed in an emotionally charged soliloquy as they approach you?
What was your reaction?
Was it fear?
Did you cross the street out of a concern for your safety?
I recently travelled to the beautiful City of Vancouver, British Columbia as part of a long overdue two (2) week Western Canadian family vacation. The morning after our arrival we headed out for breakfast at Joe’s Grill at 1031 Davie Street when I noticed a Vancouver Police Department (VPD) Officer effecting the arrest of an agitated man on the sidewalk.
This was nothing I hadn’t seen before but because I had my camera handy I thought it might be a good opportunity to score some interesting photographs for future Police Insider stories.
As I watched the events unfold I was impressed with the Officer’s calm demeanour as the suspect’s behaviour continually degraded. The man started to become uncooperative and combative, yelling insults, struggling with the Officer and escalating his aggressive behaviour. The longer I watched the more it became clear the man was suffering from some form of mental illness.
After approximately half an hour, the Officer escorted the man to a Patrol Wagon and left the area.
Or so I thought.
Approximately seven (7) hours later we were walking down Davie Street and noticed a man up the street who was causing a scene. He appeared to be under the influence of some kind of substance as he aggressively flailed his arms frightening people as he penetrated their personal space. As we approached I said to my wife, “Isn’t that the same guy we saw getting arrested earlier this morning?”
“I don’t think so,” she replied.
Now, I realize I’ve been out of the game for some time now but my powers of observation had always been one of my strongest crime fighting assets. As we closed the distance there was no doubt, the same aggressive behaviour, the same clothes, the same tote bags and sure enough, the same face.
So how was it this guy got arrested at 10:30 am and was back on the streets causing a disturbance at 5:30 pm?
Was this a case of the revolving doors of justice or was some other force at play here?
I had to find out for myself so I fired off a quick email to the VPD Media Office requesting the required information.
I would learn Police received a 911 call regarding a man who was damaging property. The man was arrested but released without charges as the property owner had yet to confirm their willingness to participate in a prosecution. The VPD confirmed the man in question, “Has a history of mental health and substance abuse issues.”
We spent the next day walking around Downtown Vancouver and much to my dismay we encountered over two dozen people clearly suffering from varying degrees of mental illness. We observed everything from passive schizophrenics, simply having quiet discussions with themselves, to aggressive, confrontational people screaming at frightened pedestrians.
As we walked through the streets I couldn’t help but wonder how many times VPD Officers are dispatched to calls involving these troubled people. I also couldn’t help wondering how often VPD Officers are forced to confront these volatile people when they are armed with a potentially deadly weapon.
The situation sparked an interesting conversation with an extended family member we visited during our vacation.
“If three big cops encounter someone with a mental health issue who’s just holding a knife, why can’t they just tackle them instead of shooting them?” he asked.
I realize people on the outside of the Law Enforcement world consider the question to be a valid one.
But is it a reasonable expectation?
With education and a better understanding of the dynamics of a deadly force encounter, use of force principles and the use of force continuum, most people realize such expectations are completely unrealistic.
Nonetheless, Police Officer use of force remains one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Law Enforcement profession. That misunderstanding inspired me to write the Police Insider Story, “Police & Deadly Force – Are Cops Hell Bent on Killing People?”
One of my conclusions;
“Police Officers encounter or confront people who are armed, dangerous, drunk, high, criminal or gang associated or people who suffer from some form of mental health issue every single day of the year in every single City across our great Country. The majority of these encounters are resolved peacefully and professionally.”
Unfortunately, the truth matters little when media outlets rely on controversy, speculation and sensationalism to inflame the debate.
My analysis of these shootings shared insight into the dynamics of a deadly force encounter and identified issues presented by each case. I stopped short of arriving at any conclusion regarding the justification for the use of deadly force as no such judgment could be made without a detailed account of the Police Officer’s evidence. That didn’t stop people from verbally attacking me for simply weighing in on the conversation.
In the Yatim case, the Ontario Special Investigations Unit conducted the investigation that resulted in charges of 2nd Degree Murder being laid against the shooter who was identified as TPS Constable James Forcillo. The charges remain before the courts.
In the MacIsaac case, the Ontario Special Investigations Unit conducted the investigation and concluded there were no reasonable grounds to charge a Durham Regional Police Service Officer with any criminal code offence.
Both decisions were covered extensively by the media who failed to provide much in the way of objective analysis in either case.
One thing is certain, Police Officer use of force has never been more heavily scrutinized than it’s been in the new millennium. That scrutiny is exponentially increased when it comes to Police Officer deadly force encounters with people who suffer with mental health issues.
VPD spokesperson Constable Brian Montague estimates that between 20% – 30% of all VPD interactions have some mental health component attached to them. That percentage translated to 18,000 – 27,000 VPD Officer interactions with people suffering from mental health issues in the first six months of 2014. VPD Police Chief Jim Chu has gone on record expressing concerns Police have become the mental health response agency of first resort when they should be the last.
Police detractors accuse Police Officers of committing murder and criticize Police Agencies for lack of training in the critical areas of mental health subject contacts, the use of less than lethal force and de-escalation techniques.
What most people fail to recognize is that a knife, or other weapon, in the hands of a person suffering with a mental health issue presents the identical threat that a knife, or other weapon, in the hands of a hardened criminal does. A deadly force threat is a deadly force threat no matter who presents it. Being killed by a person with a mental health issue is no different from being killed by a hardened criminal.
The result is the same, dead is dead.
Wives, husbands, children, parents and extended family members lives are shattered and the community mourns along with them in either scenario.
I take no issue with suggestions that Police Officers should have increased training and awareness when it comes to encounters with people who struggle with mental health issues. Nor does Steve Schnitzer, a Police Academy director at the Justice Institute of B.C., who tempers the conversation with a hard dose of reality;
“We can train police officers to have a certain amount of skills where they can try their best to defuse situations, where they won’t judge a person, where they are going to try to get people help in an empathic way,” he said. “But we can’t train police officers to be psychologists.”
So why do people still have the unrealistic expectation?
What Should People Know?
People should know that Police Officers aren’t Psychologists.
People should know that Police Officers don’t carry rubber guns or rubber bullets when they patrol the front lines of our dangerous Cities.
People should know that Police Officers must to respond to an imminent deadly threat with deadly force.
People should know that, unless something changes, Police Officers are going to continue to be the mental health agency of first resort.
People should know that, unless something changes, they’re going to hear more tragic stories regarding fatal confrontations between people with mental health issues and Police Officers.
There’s a steep price to be paid in the aftermath of these shootings by the people who are intimately touched by them. Those people not only include the families of the deceased, who are often fractured and irrevocably wounded by the tragic event, they may also include Police Officers who were involved in the incident. The Police Officers dispatched to the scene, which naturally includes the shooter (s), often suffer significant emotional injury or PTSD as a result of their involvement in these events.
It’s called collateral damage.
When you read about the next tragedy try to remember the problem wasn’t created by Law Enforcement.
The problem is a societal one exacerbated by the failings of an overtaxed, underfunded Mental Health Care System.
I think we all know who’s responsible for that.
Time for the rubber to meet the road.