Police, Race and Mental Illness

By Marvin Ross

Systemic racism exists in every country and no one is immune despite what some Canadian politicians have claimed. Ontario premier Doug Ford, at his daily Covid-19, press briefing, was shocked at what has gone on in the US and proudly proclaimed that there is no racism in Canada. Another right wing former politician declared that racism was like his being made fun of at school because he wore glasses.

The next day in the legislature, Doug Ford walked his assertions back. The other, lost his two consulting jobs for his stupid and ignorant comment. It took the satirical website, The Beaverton, to summarize our racist history pointing out that Canada is:

“home to the Indian Act, Chinese Head Tax, Africville, “None Is Too Many,” Japanese Internment Camps, Sixties Scoop, Residential Schools, Komagata Maru, the Oka Massacre, and MMIWG”.

It is hard for us to be sanctimonious when there are still reserves with no clean drinking water. I can say as someone who comes from an immigrant discriminated group that in my lifetime, things have improved. They just aren’t where they should be and, given human nature, may never be where they should be. American anti-black racism, however, is rather unique as explained by the internationally syndicated columnist, Gwynne Dyer.

He points out that historically, slavery has been equal opportunity. Slaves have come in all colours save for the US and Brazil. In order to justify the buying, selling and oppression of human beings of one colour, US society had to justify it. And they justified it by deciding that the slaves are inferior.

He said:

“that rationalization is still hanging around, together with the underlying knowledge that American whites had done their Black fellow-citizens a great harm, and the widespread belief among whites that you must fear those whom you have wronged.”

He also points out that American police are tremendously violent and kill unarmed Black people at a rate of 100 to one compared to the British police. The culture of police everywhere is a bit more violent than the culture of say social workers but, in Canada at least, that is improving a bit. When I worked with the police as a statistician many many years ago, it was looked down upon among their ranks for an officer to have a university education or to be taking university courses. Now, many departments are only recruiting those with university degrees and often masters degrees.

This brings me to the topic of mental illness and the police. Overall, I’ve found the police to be incredibly compassionate and understanding when they are dealing with someone in a psychotic state. I’ve heard from many others who have found the same thing. I suspect that it is likely only a few who mess up. When they mess up, it is spectacular and gets a lot of media attention. My US advocate colleague, Joseph Meyer, wrote an excellent guest blog on Pete Earley’s site on police, Black Lives Matter, and the mentally ill.

Since the George Floyd murder, Toronto had another death of a young woman from a visible minority in an interaction with police. This has led to claims of racism and a recounting of some previous deaths with police that have occurred over the years. Many of those deaths have involved racial minorities but not all. No one can know with any degree of certainty if racism played a role but I do think that the biggest reason was police stupidity and lack of proper training.

This most recent case involved Regis Korchinski-Paquet aged 29 who fell to her death from the 24th floor of a high rise in the presence of police. She is described in the article linked above as Afro-Indigenous but the family lawyer at the press conference referred to her as Ukrainian Indigenous from Nova Scotia – an example of the mixing of races and ethnicities in Canada.

What is known is that there was a family dispute and her mother called 911 for help getting her daughter to the psychiatric emergency. The family lives in a very nice area of the city but six cops showed up for the call. When the police got off the elevator, they found Regis, her mother and her brother in the hall. Six big cops with guns (even holstered), handcuffs, etc is very intimidating regardless of your mental state.

It is reported that Regis got into an argument with the police and then said she needed to go to the bathroom and went back into her apartment. The police followed her in and blocked her family from going in with her. Next, her mother heard “mom, help me” and Regis went over the balcony to her death. No one knows what took place in the apartment other than the police officers who were there and, stupidly, the Toronto Police do not have bodycams.

The event is being investigated by the civilian review agency but this is my assessment. Six cops to answer a 911 call for mental health assistance is absurd. It simply escalates the situation. I have seen the police respond to a floridly psychotic person and only one cop comes with one backup. The backup stays out of the way and out of sight and is only there if things escalate and if he/she is needed. The main officer then talks quietly and calmly to the person so as not to frighten or escalate. The officer uses quiet, respectful conversation to get the person to comply and to go to the hospital. That cannot be achieved by six big cops huddled in a confined space like an apartment hallway.

Despite all the calls for better police training, there are still cops who just don’t get it and that is the problem. But even if they do get it, the key question is why do we abdicate the crisis care in mental illness to cops in the first place. Those who are ill deserve more than to be treated by people with guns. it has already proven to be a disaster.

2 thoughts on “Police, Race and Mental Illness

  1. But even if they do get it, the key question is why do we abdicate the crisis care in mental illness to cops in the first place. Those who are ill deserve more than to be treated by people with guns. it has already proven to be a disaster”
    WE know why this is . Gilbert Sharpe’s lousy Mental health ACT. Aided and abetted by the “fools” who do not think that mentally ill people need hospitalization. These folks have absolutely no knowledge of anosognosia , and appear to believe that irrational minds can make sensible treatment choices. More beds are required ! And less interference form lawyers would help.


  2. The tragic events at 100 High Park are indeed disturbing, in order to have six policemen on site the 911 dispatcher must have sent 3 priority response units in 3 cars.. Was the mobile crisis intervention team also there ? and if not why not ? 11 division has a mobile crisis intervention team , as do all Toronto divisions they should have handled the call after the priority response unit had made sure that the nurse would be safe. The civilian review members must provide some answers.


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