Cops kill the mentally ill because of poor training: Ombudsman

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Ontario police kill mentally ill people because of how they’re trained, and it didn’t seem to bother Yasir Naqvi nearly as much as it should have, the province’s ombudsman said Wednesday.

Paul Dubé’s report, following years of work begun under his predecessor André Marin, isn’t flashy or bombastic. Just a businesslike chronicle of how well-meaning officers follow their instructions and end up killing people unnecessarily.

Marin started the job after a Toronto officer killed disturbed teenager Sammy Yatim on a streetcar. Yatim, who according to his family had no history of mental illness and was acting out of character, had a knife and had attacked another passenger. But by the time Const. James Forcillo shot him, the streetcar was empty and Yatim was isolated. A jury eventually convicted Forcillo of attempted murder, but only because the officer kept shooting at Yatim — six more times — after he was already down.

Very often, killings by police officers involve people who are mentally ill, Dubé’s report says, and that’s in spite of investigations and coroners’ reports that have told the government that the police aren’t trained to deal with sick people who are acting out in public.

“Our investigation found that Ontario officers have plenty of training on how to use their guns, but not enough on how to use their mouths,” Dubé says.

Every constable in Ontario goes through a standard program at the provincial police college, then gets refreshers and updates from his or her own department. Some police services are better at this stuff than others, Dubé found. But one thing that’s practically universal is the sense that the correct way to deal with an unco-operative person is to increase the pressure.

Sometimes the mere arrival of a police officer is enough to settle someone down. Then the officer tries talking, then speaking firmly, then giving direct orders. Then comes mild “empty-hand” force, then attempts to restrain, and then punches and kicks. The next step is non-lethal devices like batons and pepper spray and Tasers. Then guns.

This sequence used to be taught as a continuum, until someone realized it suggested to young officers they should expect to move along the line from no force to deadly force until a suspect is under control. So they changed it in the textbooks to a wheel, which is just a line bent into a circle that now nonsensically puts deadly force next to simple “officer presence.” Plus it adds the feeling that the passage of time means moving inexorably around the wheel, still toward shooting a suspect down.

Worse, the use-of-force model assumes the police are dealing with rational people. People caught in paranoid delusions aren’t. They might not respond even to the basic “Police! Don’t move!” command that officers are taught to give, and then enforce. Yelling at them more can make things worse.

“The problem is not that police officers aren’t following their training. They are. The problem is the training itself,” Dubé reports. The idea that sometimes an officer should just hold steady, or even back off a little, is not taught in detail, Dubé found. It’s certainly not emphasized.

The police college training course in Ontario is among the shortest in Canada (12 weeks, versus 21 in British Columbia, say, and 24 for the RCMP) and even instructors there think there ought to be more time for practical exercises. They do the best they can in the time they have.

“There are countless cases where police have successfully de-escalated and peacefully resolved situations that might otherwise have ended in bloodshed. However, there is no formal mechanism to incorporate lessons learned from such cases into what Ontario police are taught, either as recruits or during annual on-the-job refresher courses,” the report says.

Dubé’s report criticizes Ottawa’s Yasir Naqvi, who was the minister in charge of policing until a couple of weeks ago, for fooling around on the issue, agreeing with the gist of the recommendations but not promising to do much of anything. The ministry told Dubé it’s reviewing policing in Ontario, which is true but not really the point, and Dubé didn’t think that was good enough.

Naqvi’s response was “disappointing and perplexing,” Dubé writes, capped off with a “baffling” letter saying the ministry would respond to the recommendations later. Which is not how it’s supposed to work.

“I strongly encourage (the ministry and its minister) to review the human costs of their legacy of inaction, and to finally make this issue a priority,” the report concludes.

Naqvi’s replacement as the minister of community safety, David Orazietti, agreed Wednesday to adopt the whole report and follow its recommendations.

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