A British Columbia death review panel says police play a crucial role in the province’s mental-health system and there are ways for officers to reduce fatalities and improve public safety.
The BC Coroners Service say in a report released Tuesday that provincial police respond to more than 74,000 calls every year related to mental-health issues and substance-use concerns.
The aim of the review is to determine how deaths in similar circumstances could be prevented.
The panel examined 127 deaths between 2013 and 2017 related to mental-health issues, including chronic alcohol or substance use, and found that 21 deaths were attributed to police use of force. Of those who died, 63 people were known to police and 28 had a past history of violence when police were called.
Police officers have assumed greater responsibility as first responders to mental-health crisis situations, the review says.
“This has resulted in police often being the initial crisis contact point to the mental health care continuum; assessing risk, intervening, triaging, transporting or referring persons to medical care or services,” it says.
“The high volume of police-civilian encounters for mental health and substance abuse has resulted in police being frontline responder for the provincial mental-health system.”
The review says people in a mental-health crisis are often unpredictable and officers need more training and support when they’re dealing with such situations.
The report used the example of a confrontation between police and a mentally ill man who a 911 caller said was standing near an intersection, shouting and waving a long wooden board.
The caller said he was concerned for the safety of pedestrians and motorists though the man had not actually approached or threatened anyone.
When officers arrived on the scene, the man didn’t obey their commands and when beanbag shotgun didn’t stop the man from moving towards police, an officer said he had no choice but use his weapon to protect himself.
“The man was taken to hospital but did not survive,” the report says. “His cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds.”
Robert Gordon, director of the Applied Legal Studies Program at Simon Fraser University, said police officers are not usually sufficiently qualified to determine whether someone is mentally ill.
Beyond containing a situation, protecting themselves others and the individual creating the problem there is little that they can do, he said in an interview.
Training and educating police officers to deal with such a crisis is part of a “sound curriculum” and an essential component that most police managements recognize now, Gordon said.
However differentiating between someone who is mentally ill or a substance user comes primarily from “on-the-street training,” said the former 15-year police officer.
Mental-health issues were seen in 69 per cent of those who died, while chronic alcohol use was 49 per cent and substance use was 61 per cent.
Gordon said it sometimes may be difficult for officers in the field to tell the difference between a drug overdose and someone who is mentally ill.
“It’s usually delusions and paranoia and so on. It’s hard to describe but once you’ve seen it and dealt with it you get it.”
The review found that mental-health symptoms included conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, psychosis, dementia, a history of depression, stress, or anxiety.
“These factors were the primary reason police were called by the public, friends and family members of the persons who died,” it says.
Panel chairman Michael Egilson said in a news release police have become part of the mental-health system and that role needs to be acknowledged, supported and incorporated into the larger provincial mental health and addictions strategy.
“While deaths during police interactions are rare occurrences, when compared to the overall number of police-citizen encounters, they have a profound impact on the families, friends, communities, the police and agencies involved,” the review says.
The report identified three areas to reduce deaths: increasing access to mental-health assessments, using findings from encounters with the public to inform ongoing police professional development and improving co-ordination between health services and police who encounter someone who is mentally ill.
Story by Hina Alam, The Canadian Press