Police Use of Force in Dealing with the Mentally Ill

The shooting of Sammy Yatim brought police treatment of emotionally disturbed person (EDPs) to the forefront of the public eye. There were cries for change long before this tragedy but they were largely ignored.

The mistreatment of persons considered EDP or mentally ill by police has been highly publicized in the media in the recent past. Many cases have led to an examination of police conduct and use of force in the context of Police interaction with mentally ill persons. The Justice system in many ways has failed to address the special needs of mentally ill accused. Toronto has seen a number of tragic situations, and as a Toronto Criminal Defence lawyer I want to see change.

The death of young Ashley Smith, only 19, while in custody, led to a corner’s inquest, where the Jury ruled her death a homicide. Following that inquest, we saw the Inquest into the deaths of Sylvia Klibingaitis, 52, Michael Eligon, 29, and Reyal Jardine-Douglas, 25, who were all killed during interactions with Police. That Jury also ruled these three deaths homicides and made a number of important recommendations about changes to the way police interact with people who are or suspected of being mentally ill.

These recommendations are much needed but they are not new. As a defence lawyer member of the downtown Toronto HSJCC committee, and several other mental health committees and panels, I have taken part in discussions surrounding the need for changes to police policy in dealing with persons who are mentally ill for years now. Police training is inadequate and the guidelines for use of force and dealing with persons with mental illness do not require the police to first try to de-escalate or use other non-confrontational techniques. These are changes that must be made to improve police interactions with some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

The police will only be held accountable when public outcry can no longer be ignored. Some steps have been taken in the recent past, for example, the Toronto Police created the MCIT program, a mobile crisis intervention team stationed at each division, it is a team comprised of a nurse and a police officer who attend calls that have a mental health element. However, these teams are small and under funded especially in Toronto, Canada’s largest city with the most homeless and indigent.

The trial of James Forcillo, represented by Toronto’s go-to lawyer for Police Officers, Peter Brauti will be a barometer of how the public feels about the police excessive use of force in the apprehension of persons exhibiting signs of mental illness. The Sammy Yatim tragedy will hopefully lead to changes in the way police are trained to handle these situations. Police Chief Bill Blair appointed retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to prepare a report with recommendations on the Police Use of Force model. The outcome of Forcillo’s trial and the findings of the report on the Use of Force will be worth watching out for in 2014.