We are making a mistake. As a community of people who claim prize notions of compassion and respect, we’re making the same mistake every day, year and after year.
And we’re making this mistake because we haven’t found the political courage to chart a new course. This failure creates its own vortex of costs – physical, mental, financial and cultural – and its maw continues to expand with each passing year.
Given the limited vision that so often plagues us, it seems unlikely that we will rethink what we want our police officers to do when faced with mental health crises on our streets until our long collective inaction breeds a genuine and visceral disaster of the sort that produces chilling headlines.
The real tragedy here is that disasters are happening all the time around the country, but they are often unreported or lack the kind of gore that shake people from their reality television shows or Twitter feeds.
Our blind insistence that the men and women of our police services also act as armed therapists is costing lives. Not because of inaction by police or because they don’t care or are indifferent. It is happening because we train our police to serve and protect the public by upholding the law yet somewhere along the way we decided, without giving it a moment’s thought, that to carry badge also meant you are the caretaker of citizens suffering from mental illness.
To put it another way, we don’t ask our police to treat infections or cast broken bones yet we do expect them to act as our best response to a mental health crisis.
In the Niagara region of Ontario, that extreme difficulty of asking police officers to shoulder mental health calls was recently laid bare in a Special Investigations Unit report on two Niagara Regional Police officers.
The SIU’s investigates all instances of injury or death involving police in Ontario. This typically involves the aftermath of a police shooting, a chase or an arrest. This particular investigation was rather different. It examined the role of two NRP officers who interacted with an elderly man the day before he killed himself.
According to the SIU report, the officers did everything right. They responded to a call of someone threatening to drown himself in the Welland Canal. They talked to the man, did their best to assess his mental state, offered him assistance – including calling in paramedics – and even drove the man home.
To their eyes, the man was in good spirits. He was healthy. He joked with the officers and denied he wanted to hurt himself. From the point of view of the police officers, he wasn’t actively suicidal.
But he was. Sometime after the officers left, the man threw himself into the Welland Canal, where he drowned. His body was found the next day.
That the SIU chose to investigate the circumstances of the man’s death stretches the scope of its mandate almost to the breaking point. The entire purpose of the SIU to hold police officers accountable. The SIU watches the watchmen, as it were.
The SIU mandate is invoked when there is a reason to think the actions, or inaction, of police may have caused injury or death. Neither circumstance applied in this case. Local police officers, whose relationship with the SIU can be charitably described as cool under the best of circumstances, were understandably annoyed to find their colleagues under investigation for a suicide they were powerless to prevent.
Still, the SIU report is important because it points to something policing and mental health leaders have known for years – that expecting cops to be not just the first, but usually, the only responder to a mental health call is unfair to both the officers and those in need.
Police officers do receive some training in mental health crisis response and assessment. They also have some limited powers under the Mental Health Act to take someone into custody if they can determine a person is a threat to themselves or others. But their primary function is not to diagnose or treat someone in a mental health crisis. It’s not what we train them for. Cops aren’t therapists, psychologists or psychiatrists.
To expect cops to be mental health experts on top of everything we expect of them on a daily basis – from investigating murders to handing out traffic tickets – is unrealistic and naive.
Certainly, when someone presents an immediate threat to themselves or others, there is a clear need for the someone with the skills, equipment and authority of a police officer. But once that immediate danger has passed, someone with a mental health issue needs the help of a mental health expert.
To be clear, this is not to say it is an absolute fact that if a psychologist had been with those NRP officers when they talked to that man, his suicide would have been prevented. If someone is clever and determined to end their own life it can be difficult to determine their intent, even for a highly trained and experienced expert. But we can say if police had the proper support at the time they reached that man perhaps his family would not be mourning him today.
This case has not struck a chord with our politicians. Despite the renewed warnings from police leaders, the story of the drowning of an old man police tried to help is not vitiating the Niagara police services board or the legislature at Queen’s Park.
But it should be.
There are no quick and easy answers here. There are some programs that are making a difference, but they are too small in scope and too poorly funded to have the reach and impact they should.
Creating a more compassionate and effective system means rethinking what we want our police officers to do and how we want to spend health care and law enforcement dollars. These are hard, complicated debates that tend to repel politicians because they do not lend themselves to snappy re-election slogans or campaign ads.
But until that changes, until we insist our elected leaders take a hard look at the problem and until those leaders are willing to work to change things, we will find more bodies in canals and more police officers under unnecessary investigation.