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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Police must reach out to mentally ill

October 30, 2008
ANDRE PICARD, Globe and Mail

Last Tuesday, just after midnight, a client walked into Pro Gym, a 24-hour fitness club in Montreal's east end.

The 33-year-old man was acting strangely, muttering to himself, swearing out loud, and when he got on the treadmill to run he was wearing a bulletproof vest and sporting his police service revolver.

The club's manager called police - the facility is located across the street from station 23 - and they intervened.

The constable on the treadmill, obviously in the midst of a psychotic episode, reacted with a combination of anger and paranoia. He ran to a nearby room and locked himself in.

He then proceeded to trash the place: He threw weights at a mirror and the walls, destroyed the computers, and smashed everything he could get his hands on.

When police arrived, it was not with guns drawn. They talked to the distressed man - who has a history of severe depression - and they waited, and waited and waited. They even took the time to call his father to come in and help.

The standoff with the armed man lasted more than four hours. During that time, the constable fired his service revolver eight times into the ceiling and walls. Still they waited.

Finally, the man opened the door of the room where he had barricaded himself, still brandishing a weapon. He was shot with rubber bullets that knocked him over but didn't hurt him because he was wearing a bulletproof vest.

The officer was then disarmed, subdued and transported to hospital, where he received psychiatric care.

Contrast this with the high-profile case of Robert Dziekanski, who died after an encounter with the Mounties at Vancouver International Airport just over a year ago.

The 40-year-old Polish immigrant was ranting and raving, and turned over a table. He was confronted immediately by RCMP officers.

Police knew that Mr. Dziekanski was not armed - he had been through airport security and had waited for hours in a lounge because of an immigration snafu before "acting up."

With limited knowledge of English, and visibly distraught, he almost certainly did not understand what was being said to him. Mr. Dziekanski posed no danger and was, at worst, a nuisance. Yet he was confronted by four police officers, zapped with a taser and died.

A long-delayed public inquiry into his death - headed by retired B.C. Court of Appeal judge Thomas Braidwood - is now slated to begin in January. While it will focus on the appropriate use of tasers, the inquiry should examine something else: The appropriate response to people with mental illness.

Screaming, pacing, ranting, muttering, damaging property and uttering threats are antisocial acts that police witness every day. One study found that at least one in four police calls involved a person with mental illness. These are acts not only of the indigents and drug abusers who are fixtures of our urban landscape, but of working people and professionals such as police officers and electricians who suffer from mental-health crises.

One of the biggest challenges of policing - and public health - is how to respond to such acts by people who are frightened, irrational and pose a greater danger to themselves than to others.

But the contrast between the two incidents - one in a Montreal gym and another in the Vancouver airport - one year apart is striking. We need to ask ourselves why the police response was so markedly different and what we can learn from the outcomes.

The most obvious answer is that, in the first example, the person suffering from mental illness was a police officer.

The responding officers saw him as a colleague, perhaps a friend, who was in trouble. They saw him as a human being who was sick, not as a criminal. As a result, Montreal police acted admirably. They practised a method known as de-escalation - a fancy word meaning "waiting for a person to calm down."

Mr. Dziekanski, on the other hand, was an anonymous figure, another guy ranting and raving in public. He was in an airport - an institution that symbolizes society in a hurry, and a place where obsession with law and order prevails.

Sure people with untreated mental illness can be bothersome, disruptive and discomforting. But they are not criminals; they are sick.

Surely our response to their pain can be a little more sophisticated than bashing down doors, handcuffing and arresting them or, as happens too often, shooting them with rubber bullets, jolts of electricity from a taser or real bullets.

The weapons that need to be used are ones that police don't draw on often enough: patience and empathy.

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