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Police and the mentally ill

October 2013

When a person is shot to death by police during an interaction, there are frequently calls from the general public as to why the police couldn’t just, “…shoot them in the leg…” or why the police couldn’t have just restrained the individual, especially those in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Regarding the article “Police shooting victim’s families still searching for answers” (Toronto Sun, 16 October 2013, by Michelle Mandel), there are two issues that need to be stressed.

Firstly, let’s all get off this ridiculous notion that cops should be trained to shoot for the arm or leg.  Anyone who shots firearms (rifles or pistols) knows how difficult it can be to hit something as small as an arm or leg, especially in high stress situations.  Even being a fraction of an inch off target can be the difference between hitting, or missing, your intended target, which is why police are trained to shoot for the largest target; that being the torso.

Yes there are marksmen shooters out there, but it’s simply impractical to train ALL officers to such a high level.  You have to practice a lot to get that good and practice even more to stay at that level.  ETF officers can be trained to that level, but they are not always there at the right time.  Most times, it’s the primary response officers who are left to deal with situations that can be over, for the good or bad, in minutes.

Secondly, police aren’t mental health workers and while it would be great if all could be trained to a “crisis-intervention” level.  That too is easier said than done.  Besides if a person is in such an emotional crisis that they won’t respond to orders to drop their weapon at police-gunpoint, would they respond to other tactics, including negotiation and de-escalation tactics?  That would obviously depend on the person and the extent of their emotional crisis. Remember, a person in an emotional crisis will not always react rationally.  When the voices in your head are telling you to kill your children with that knife in your hand, will a mental-health trained police officer telling them in a “calm and non-threatening” manner to put the knife down make a difference?  That’s the million dollar question.

What might make a difference would be if our health care system would take better care of the mentally ill.

I wish to be clear that I’m not saying that police should be given a licence to “execute” the mentally ill and I’m not claiming that police are always blameless.  Sometimes they do have some blame.  It’s definitely a tragedy when anyone who is mentally-ill is killed by police, but if there is blame to be laid, GENERALLY there is plenty of blame to go around.  Police are usually just the last in a log sequence of events leading to the fatal encounter and quite frankly, often times they are left to deal with the mess that others have not dealt with properly.

In some cases, the victim wants to die, the so-called “suicide by cop”.

Bottom line, a person who is armed with a weapon is dangerous, but someone who is mentally ill can be more dangerous because they are not behaving rationally.  To say that police should simply grab the person or knock the knife out of their hands is incredibly naive and quite frankly, can be pretty stupid.  A knife, even a “small kitchen knife”, can do a shocking amount of damage in a short period of time.  If the knife strikes the right spot (femoral or carotid artery), the victim can bleed out in minutes.

If you don’t believe me, just ask the family of OPP Constable Eric Nystedt, who died on July 3, 1993 after being stabbed in the femoral artery by a domestic assault suspect he was trying to arrest.  Eric bled to death in minutes.

Nothing will change unless we acknowledge that the blame does not rest solely with the police.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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