Speaker's Corner: Time for action on police use of force

Throughout most of recorded time, society has given precious little thought or consideration to the way police responding to delicate situations confront, assist, herd or frighten people who have a mental illness.

Suddenly, with the release of the recent report by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, we find ourselves in the unexpected position of having a wealth of data and thoughtful recommendations.

The looming task for police and legislators is to cease collecting and collating information and get on with the job of implementing the changes.

But they should be under no illusions that doing so is going to mean simply ticking off some items on a checklist. It necessitates an ongoing commitment of resources, goodwill, and adherence to two overriding goals identified by Iacobucci: the close involvement of psychiatric survivors who know the issues and a firm belief that we can, and must, reduce the number of mentally ill people who die at the hands of police to zero.

Sensitive in tone and wise in its goals, the Iacobucci report has captured the essence of what repeatedly plagues interactions between police and people in crisis. Training is too haphazard or ill-informed. Police culture focuses too much on the use of guns or Tasers instead of de-escalation techniques that attempt to understand the perspective of a mentally ill person in crisis.

Inevitably, there are gaps in the report that need attention. But what is more concerning is the possibility police will implement Iacobucci’s recommendations on a piecemeal basis.

To take one example, it would be folly to grant police officers broader use of Tasers unless they routinely have body cameras that can record their words and actions for later review. Greater recourse to weaponry demands correspondingly greater accountability.

In a similar vein, permitting officers to have immediate access to confidential information about a subject’s background, psychiatric history, and medication may be of assistance during a crisis. But misuse and abuse of this information is inevitable unless police are subject to strict privacy rules they must rigorously adhere to. It is imperative that any policy on the sharing of medical information about a person in crisis involves consultation with the province’s privacy commissioner.

Institutions faced with masses of recommendations are prone to undertaking those that are cheap and easy. Iacobucci cannily foresaw such a response when he proposed a broad-based implementation committee to take charge of the process.

In a crucial misstep, however, his report proposes that the committee operate almost exclusively in camera. This is regrettable. Creating an opaque committee and muzzling its members will not enhance public confidence in the process or promote public awareness and debate.

Thankfully, Iacobucci clearly identified the elephant in the room: the frailties generally in the mental-health system in Ontario. He made it clear it is impossible to deal fully with police encounters with people in crisis without considering the availability of mental-health services more broadly. Iacobucci also made it clear that fixing the mental-health system was beyond the scope of his process. But there is no doubt we need to fix it.

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government, then, must now step up and address the real issue. The Wynne government has shown its concern for the poor and marginalized in our community with its funding of social programs. We also need a commitment to services to minimize mental-health crises and ensure people in crisis don’t come into contact with the police.

Undoubtedly, there will be howls of outrage from those focused on fiscal matters. However, making the streets safe for people with mental illness is not an expensive frivolity that offers no return. It saves lives and avoids unnecessary suffering for the families of those killed by the police. It saves people in crisis from the trauma caused by interactions with the police. It also prevents the mentally ill from becoming criminalized and avoids the enormous expenses of coroner’s inquests, independent reviews, and inquiries. The simple fact is we pay the cost one way or the other.

We should focus on paying at the front end for services and support to improve the lives of people with mental illness rather than at the back end in the form of more jails, courts, and coroner’s inquests. From all appearances, Wynne has an understanding of these broader issues. The time has come for the government to act.

Breese Davies is a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer, vice president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, and chairwoman of CLA’s women’s committee.

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