If you pay any attention to the news, you may have heard that an 18-year-old boy, Sammy, was shot to death by a Toronto police officer a few weeks ago. He was alone in a streetcar. With a 3” knife. I guess they thought that heavy, iron streetcar couldn’t contain him.
The same week in Montreal, police in a 20-hour ‘standoff’ finally convinced a fellow to hand himself over – unshot, undead! What alternative method did they use? Talk.
So what do we know about Sammy? We know he was jobless, homeless, 18, in conflict with his father over pot. Witnesses say he had a knife in one hand, and his penis in the other, with a not-here look in his eyes. All told, sounds like an obvious ‘psychotic episode’. His family say he had no history of mental illness. But distress more often arises around this age. Which is why we more often see a breakdown occur in young people who’ve gone away to university, leaving home for the first time and beginning more intimidating academic life minus normal supports.
From what we know about mental illness, Sammy could have been just entering a state of psychosis, brought on by the stress he was feeling. He certainly had more than enough to cope with. An emergency response team could no doubt have helped him, but apparently they don’t work after 10 pm in Toronto.
On the Toronto Police Service website, on “Mental Health Issues”, we find what appears to be ‘advice’ on how to handle such situations, with links to further information. It appears optional. And the implications are opposite to the comments of a police trainer during one past inquest. “You shoot until the threat is gone,” he said and “there is no magic-bullet alternative to firearms” ** Pretty simplistic.
I loved Ombudsman Marin’s comments about recommendations from past inquests being virtually identical over the past 20 years, and about the definition of insanity being to keep repeating the same behavior and expect different outcomes***. Let’s hope something really meaningful comes out of his investigation. Like clear new procedural guidelines – not only for handling someone in mental distress, but for assessing situations from point A. And how about new training curricula that include significant time on understanding the varied populations the police are serving and protecting. They need to know they are not here to protect merely ‘middle-class-white-4th-generation-anglo-Canadians-in perfect mental-and-physical-health’. No. More likely, anything but!
The horror story here is that there was no one to protect the victims from the ‘protectors’. Is it possibly because Toronto Police Services are immature, like Toronto? Cities take time to mature, and so do their police. It’s a sign of maturity to be able to admit you are wrong, just as it is a sign of maturity to be able to laugh at yourself, to take yourself less seriously. Are we finally, in Toronto, beginning to enter that era in our history?
I welcome argument!* http://www.torontopolice.on.ca/community/mentalhealth.php ** http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/editorials/rewriting-the-tragic-script-when-police-confront-the-mentally-ill/article13744211/ *** http://www.ombudsman.on.ca/Home.aspx