Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Police Shootings and Mental Illness

Back in 2010, the Star ran a series they called "Above the Law", arguing that police were held to a different standard when they killed or seriously injured civilians.

On a blog I maintained at the time, I posted a critique of the series here.  I closed with this paragraph:
Three of the seven involve shootings of people acting violently towards police. All three had serious mental issues. The Star plays this up, that these are sympathetic people being shot. Lots of quotations from family members. And yes, it's tragic when a schizophrenic puts himself in a position to get shot by police. It's not necessarily blameworthy conduct, from somebody with that kind of disease. But if a large mentally ill person is coming at me with a knife, then, even though I don't have any ill will to my attacker, I don't want the nearby police officer to reach for his baton.
Shootings of the mentally ill continue to be a difficult problem in policing, particularly in Toronto.  It happens frequently, and it's tragic, but I continue to believe that the police - in most such cases - are acting appropriately.  There's a series currently running called "Cracked" - it's a crime drama set in Toronto, pairing up police with psychiatrists, to show the intersection between policing and mental health.  The premise is pretty implausible, and the show itself is fairly unremarkable (I was drawn to watch it because I was a big fan of ReGenesis, and Mayko Nguyen has a role in Cracked...and they also rolled out half of Flashpoint's cast for cameos in the first season, including a stunning performance by Enrico Colantoni in a full-blown manic episode), but it draws on a compelling issue.

There's now a coroner's inquest going on into a number of fatal shootings, which the Star reported on today.  It's fairly critical of the rather one-dimensional response police apply to people wielding knives:  Shout at them to drop the knife, draw your firearm, and shoot if the threat becomes imminent.

A number of alternative approaches are queried:  Many of these knife-wielding suspects are experiencing a psychotic episode of some sort, and in many cases a command to drop the knife will merely escalate matters, and that taking a "softer approach" might be more productive.

Police training doesn't permit for that, though.  They don't step back and ask, "What's this person's mental state?"  Yelling to drop the knife sends a clear message to any rational person that...well, they'd better drop it.  It also doubles, quite importantly, as a warning to other officers and members of the public who may not have noticed the knife.  I could imagine a scenario where the latter concern is not applicable, and where the individual is so clearly in crisis to warrant a softer approach...but I think it's unrealistic to expect an average police officer to be prepared to figure out all these contingencies.  Knowing how to identify and talk down a schizophrenic would be nice, but it's not realistic to put that into the required curriculum at Aylmer.  "Firearms qualification, check.  Fitness qualification, check.  Criminal code qualification, check.  Masters degree in psychology..."

What about different approaches to physically subduing a knife-wielding suspect?  Why shoot?  Why not disarm him in hand-to-hand?  Body armour?  Riot shields?  Batons?

Simply this:  Shooting is the solution that reliably works.  The rest...less so.  The story reports that a bullet-proof vest doesn't necessarily protect against knives...which is probably more accurately put that the vest will only protect the centre of body mass against the knife, and not the arms, legs, hands, neck, or head.  But the important take-away is this:  "knives can do severe damage, regardless of the user's age, strength, or skill".

If a police officer with a baton and wearing a bullet-proof vest engaged a knife-wielding mentally ill suspect in hand-to-hand, I would expect the police officer to come out on top over nine times out of ten.  I would expect that police officer to escape serious injury a majority of the time.

But are those odds good enough?  Is it reasonable to tell police officers that a 20% chance (for the sake of argument) of serious injury is something they should be prepared to take, rather than shooting the guy coming at them with a knife?

One of the interesting tidbits I picked up from Flashpoint - and I don't know if it's part of Toronto's philosophy, but it is a real thing in policing - is the "Priority of Life":  First, you protect hostages and innocents.  The second priority is police officers.  The third priority is suspects and offenders.  In other words, if a police officer needs to put himself in danger to protect an innocent, then yeah, we expect him to do so.  And if you can save the suspect/offender without endangering yourself or others, again, do it.  But compromising the safety of an innocent or police officer to save the suspect/offender...that's unreasonable.

The counter-argument would require us to put mentally ill offenders into the 'innocent' category...which is not entirely baseless in theory, but it's unrealistic in practice.  It would suggest that Ryan Russell was wrong to shoot at Richard Kachkar.  Don't get me wrong:  I think NCR was exactly the right verdict for Kachkar, but I nonetheless think it would have been less tragic (still tragic, but less so) had Russell successfully shot and killed Kachkar and in doing so saved his own life.

This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.