“How Can I Help?” – Canada Ponders Mental Health and Policing

Four years ago, a police officer in Ontario shot Michael MacIsaac, who was running naked through his suburban neighborhood. He was allegedly holding a metal chair leg of some sort, and when he didn’t drop it, Constable Brian Taylor shot and killed him.

An inquest into the shooting has just wrapped. One of the participants emphasized not just specialized training, but a general approach based on de-escalation.

Jennifer Chambers, one of 18 witnesses who testified at the inquest, is executive director of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health-funded Empowerment Council. The organization has long advocated for improved training for frontline officers who may encounter many different shades of mental illness on the job.

Chambers has made her case at more than 10 different police shooting inquests, including the one for 45-year-old Andrew Loku earlier this month, and says she’s noticed some common themes.

“The police see somebody holding something they find threatening and they give the police challenge … When the person doesn’t drop it, they just keep yelling,” Chambers told CBC Toronto ahead of the release of the jury’s recommendations.

Instead, she would like to see officers first ask: “What’s going on? Can I help you? Is there something we can do? Let’s talk.”

I like this framing. It’s pretty clear that a case of a naked man running through a suburb in winter might be in mental health crisis, but too many cases are less clear. Specialized training and resources are necessary, but just generally de-emphasizing reliance on instant compliance, absent other threat indicators, will save lives.

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