Command-&-control cop paradigm a threat to us all

John Sewell –

john1Albert Einstein reportedly defined insanity as doing the same things over and over again and expecting to get different results. When you begin looking at the recommendations about how things should change so police do not kill those in mental distress there’s enough repetition to make you wonder whether you are in an insanity loop.

After Edmound Yu was shot and killed in 1997 by Toronto police in an empty streetcar—the parallels with the killing of Sammy Yatim a year ago are spooky—a coroner’s jury recommended that police should be better trained in dealing with those in mental crisis. New police training was introduced for all officers and it has continued for the past 16 years.

There have been about a dozen other coroners’ juries into similar deaths at the hands of the police, with generally similar results: police need to be better trained. Some have argued that the problem is a police culture of command and control, and that until that is changed and police authorities recognize that this basic approach is what drives officers to fire their guns, the chance of responding differently won’t happen. But making a major change in police culture has been dismissed in Ontario.

When Sammy Yatim was shot and killed on an empty Dundas streetcar a year ago, there was a large public outcry, probably because the whole sad story was captured on video and ran viral. Police chief Bill Blair decided to react strongly: he would retain Frank Iacobucci, a former judge of the Supreme Court of Canada, to report on the police use of force.

Now, more than a million dollars later, Iacobucci has issued his report, Police Encounters with People in Crisis, which has 84 detailed recommendations. He says police need better training and so do supervisors; police need better liaison with mental health agencies; recruit selection procedures need to be better; discipline procedures need to be better; the police service needs to produce a statement of policies and principles; more study is needed on the effectiveness of police training.

We’ve certainly heard this all before, although not in so much detail, or with so many committees to ensure accountability and liaison. Police authorities think the proposals are excellent—nothing much has to change, they will just carry on with a few tweaks here and there and a few more committees.

The significant change that some of us thought he would make wasn’t there. He could have recommended that those with the most expertise in dealing with those in mental crisis in Toronto—the Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams (MCITs)—be first responders in mental crisis calls, so that their skills could address the problem rather than leaving the encounters in the hands of the rank and file officers. Instead he suggests MCITs be “notified” of every call when it is received; a slight change from the current arrangement of being notified when the officers arrive on the scene.

His report notes that in Hamilton, Ontario the mental health team is a first responder. That’s something I told the Toronto Police Service Board a year ago, asking it be instituted here. Deputy Chief Mike Federico, that man in charge of the MCITs, told the board that I was wrong, that there were no mental-health team first responders in Ontario.

There is the problem, quite baldly: the senior person in charge of these matters is not open to new practices and policies, and instead challenges those with better information.

When Iacobucci says he hope that Toronto police will create a program for those with mental-health training to be first responders sometime in the future, one wonders whether the deputy chief will be willing to implement it.

johnIacobucci made a recommendation (as have many coroners’ juries) which Toronto police love: conducted-energy weapons (Tasers) should be made more available to Toronto police in a pilot project. Last year Chief Blair asked the board for the money for more conducted energy weapons and it turned him down. Police like the technological approach, but it is wrong. We should not spend any more money on conducted energy weapons or other use-of-force options.

What’s needed is a serious change in the police culture of command and control. Iacobucci instead asks for a refinement of the use-of-force model to include de-escalation as a tactic. It is the old approach of just adding things on to what the police already do rather than being clear that there must be change in the way police act. It was another missed opportunity.

John Sewell is a former Mayor of Toronto.