Why did mentally ill man have to die? — (The Toronto Star)

SSRI Ed note: Douglas (25), Debassige (28), Reid (26), Bellon (63), Vass (55), Yu (35), Williams (24), Barnett (22), Moses (41), Sabatino (32), Donaldson (44)

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The Toronto Star


A photograph of Edmond Yu taken at the Scott Mission on Christmas Day, 1996. Yu would be shot by police two months later.

The cases are strikingly similar: a man with mental illness who has stopped taking his medication wields a makeshift weapon, such as a hammer or kitchen knife, and is confronted by police.  He refuses to drop the weapon or threatens the officers and is shot dead.

The latest killing happened three weeks ago, when Reyal Jardine-Douglas was shot by police while fleeing a TTC bus allegedly armed with a knife. His death came virtually on the eve of a coroner’s inquest into Byron Debassige’s similarly deadly confrontation with Toronto police two years ago.

Starting Monday, a jury of five ordinary people will try to answer the same questions at Debassige’s inquest that were asked at the inquests for Lester Donaldson, Edmond Yu, Wayne Williams and seven other men with mental illness who were killed by Toronto police officers over the last two decades: Why was this person killed and what can be done to avoid similar deaths in the future?

What the inquest should also be asking is why those previous deaths did not prevent this one.

Responding to recommendations from the Yu inquest, among others, Toronto police created Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, which now operate in nine police divisions between 1 p.m. and 11 p.m. The two-person teams include a plain-clothes officer and a psychiatric nurse, but police say they are not equipped to respond to immediate threats of violence.

The Yu inquest also led to the creation of a special “crisis resolution course” — since replaced by courses within an officer’s annual advanced patrol training — through which every frontline officer is taught to deal with people in mental distress. The inquest also led to stronger links between the police and the mental health community and greater consultation with psychiatric patients, who helped develop training scenarios.

“What we’ll never know,” says Dorothy Cotton, a Kingston-based psychologist who heads the Police/Mental Health Liaison project of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, “is how many deaths have been averted.”

That is little comfort to the families of the men like Debassige, Jardine-Douglas and O’Brien Christopher-Reid.

Christopher-Reid, 26, was shot by police in June 2004 after allegedly lunging at an officer with a knife. Peter Rosenthal, the lawyer who represented Christopher-Reid’s family at a 2007 inquest, says something is not working because shootings keep happening. “Either there’s a problem with the training or the officers aren’t listening.”

Rosenthal, who also represented the family of Otto Vass at a similar inquest the year before, says police often exacerbate tense situations and provoke a violent response by aggressively confronting people with mental illness.

“Police don’t recognize that approaching in a softer way, using voice rather than threats and weapons, would be the most effective way of dealing with a situation.”

Police say when there is an immediate threat of violence a person’s mental state is ignored.

“The police respond to the behaviour, not the condition,” said Staff Supt. Mike Federico, the senior Toronto officer in charge of mental health issues. “The encounter isn’t driven because they are emotionally disturbed; the encounter is driven because the person is behaving in a risky manner.”

In many cases, Cotton agreed, a person may simply be dangerous. “It may be immaterial that they are mentally ill.”

Coroner’s inquests into the deaths of Vass and Christopher-Reid both recommended that frontline officers in Toronto be given Tasers as an alternative to firearms if force is necessary. Currently the weapon can only be used by tactical officers, in hostage rescues and by frontline supervisors.

Federico agrees with the previous inquests’ recommendation, as does the Association of Chiefs of Police. But the decision rests with the province, which has so far refused to expand the weapon to frontline officers, citing a desire to take a “measured approach.”

“What drives these interactions is fear, on both sides,” said lawyer Anita Szigeti, a mental health advocate who has often represented clients of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at inquests. “That’s the problem: the clients are afraid of police and police are afraid of the clients.”

According to Cotton, statistics show that while encounters between police and what they call EDPs (“emotionally distressed persons”) have increased — particularly since Ontario stopped institutionalizing people with mental illness — the number of violent clashes is falling.

“It’s not an epidemic,” said Cotton, adding that there has been “dramatic improvement” in how police respond to people with mental illness since the high-profile inquests of the 1990s. “But that’s not to say one incident isn’t one too many.”

The improvement is attributed in part to new police procedures and training. Every aspiring officer is now taught how to handle mental illness calls; training scenarios are often based on the inquest cases.

Despite officers’ training in de-escalation and negotiation, police regularly face tense confrontations because they are called upon to enforce the Mental Health Act, which allows a person — who is threatening to harm themselves or others — to be detained involuntarily for a psychiatric examination.

Cotton laments the police’s role in these scenarios as a “default social service.”

Such appears to have been the case with Jardine-Douglas.

The family of the 25-year-old Pickering man was trying to get him treated for paranoia and other mental illnesses, but he was unwilling. On Aug. 29, the family phoned 911, telling the dispatcher which bus Jardine-Douglas had boarded and that he suffered from mental illness. Minutes later, standing with other officers a few blocks away, they heard of the shooting over the two-way radio.

Cotton says the real failure in these cases occurs long before police are called.

“We as a society have a lot of trouble with mental illness, and because of that the police often get involved when ideally they wouldn’t get involved at all.

“That’s the real tragedy.”

Fatal shootings of the mentally ill

Reyal Jardine-Douglas (Aug. 29, 2010)

The 25-year-old Pickering man, who suffered from paranoia and other mental illnesses, was shot dead by police after allegedly fleeing a TTC bus armed with a knife. The man’s parents said they called police to help their son get admitted to hospital. The Special Investigations Unit is investigating.

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Byron Debassige (Feb. 16, 2008)

Debassige, a 28-year-old man with schizophrenia, was shot five times in the chest by police in Oriole Park after stealing lemons from a nearby convenience store armed with a three-inch knife. In clearing the officers, the SIU said Debassige “advanced” at the officers with the knife.

O’Brien Christopher-Reid (June 13, 2004)

Christopher-Reid, who suffered from “profound delusions,” was shot four times at close range by three officers in Edwards Gardens after allegedly threatening them with a knife. The SIU cleared the officers.

Antonio Bellon (Jan. 10, 2004)

Bellon, a 63-year-old man who neighbours said was mentally ill, was shot by an officer in an alleyway in the Dufferin Street and Rogers Road area, after Bellon shot and wounded another officer with a shotgun. The SIU cleared police.

Otto Vass (Aug. 9, 2000)

Vass, 55, suffered from bi-polar affective disorder and had not been taking his medications for more than a month prior to his death. He died in the parking lot of a convenience store at College Street and Lansdowne Avenue after a struggle with four officers, who had tried to arrest Vass for randomly punching one of the officers. The officers were charged with manslaughter, but acquitted in 2003.

Edmond Yu (Feb. 20, 1997)

Yu, 35, was shot and killed by police when he threatened them with a hammer on a TTC bus after allegedly assaulting a woman. Yu, who was once a medical student at the University of Toronto, struggled with schizophrenia and was often admitted to hospital involuntarily. The SIU cleared the officers.

Wayne Williams (June 11, 1996)

The 24-year-old Toronto man, who had been in and out of hospital for schizophrenia and had stopped seeing his doctor, was shot and killed by police in Scarborough after he allegedly advanced toward the officers with a knife. The SIU cleared the officers.

Tommy Barnett (Jan. 10, 1996)

Barnett, 22, was shot and killed when police found him wielding a sword in the Bathurst Street and St. Clair Ave. W. area. A coroner’s inquest found Barnett had no history of mental illness, but this was disputed by family. The officer who shot Barnett said he had no other choice and was cleared by the SIU.

Albert Moses (Sept. 29, 1994)

Moses, 41, was shot in the face in a downtown George Street rooming house after two plain-clothes officers entered his room. Moses, who had a history of mental illness, attacked one of the officers with a hammer. The officers were cleared by the SIU.

Dominic Sabatino (Aug. 9, 1992)

Sabatino was shot and killed by police in front of his brother’s Etobicoke home after he threatened an officer with a baseball bat. Sabatino, 32, suffered from schizophrenia and had stopped taking his medication. The SIU cleared the officers.

Lester Donaldson (Aug. 9, 1988)

Donaldson, 44, was shot and killed by police when he threatened them with a knife after they entered his rooming house apartment for a report of a disturbance. Donaldson suffered paranoid schizophrenia and had a history of violent clashes with police. The officer who shot him was charged with manslaughter but found not guilty.