Defusing Tense Situations: Police Need More Training, Says Expert

Sammy Yatim shooting sparks debate on police use of force
By Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
August 22, 2013 Updated: August 22, 2013

Much has been said and written about why police officers on the scene did not do more to de-escalate the situation that led to the shooting of teenager Sammy Yatim on a streetcar in Toronto a few weeks ago.

Yatim was not known to be mentally ill, but at the time of the altercation on the streetcar he was in what has been described as a “state of crisis” and obviously not in his right mind.

While declining to comment on the Yatim case specifically, a former Saskatchewan police chief who now advises police on mental health issues says there is much room for improvement when it comes to police applying their training in high-tension situations.

“I think there is insufficient attention in some cases given to trying to de-escalate the situation when nobody else is at risk,” says Terry Coleman, a former police chief who co-authored a report on police interactions with people who suffer from mental illness. 

Coleman adds, however, that police forces across the country have come a long way over the past decade in understanding mental illness.

He also notes that it can be difficult for officers to tell whether people are mentally ill. But regardless of an individual’s condition, the strategy is often the same: talk them down.

“It’s not an easy call to make when you get [to the scene],” he says. 

“But the place to start is to make sure you’re safe, make sure other people are safe. Start to try and de-escalate, stabilize and calm down the situation. You’re only going to do that by talking quietly and trying to build some sort of rapport.”

He adds that the decision to use lethal force is never easy for an officer to make. “It’s not laid out in black in white, because everything is dependent upon the circumstances.” 

Based on his research, Coleman estimates there are 1.3 million interactions between police and the mentally ill per year. 

“Most of them go extremely well,” he says. “They’re resolved best by communicating—carefully, quietly, and patiently communicating with people under those circumstances.” 

Unnecessary Lethal Force?

Yatim’s case sparked controversy as well as a nationwide dialogue on how police deal with people with mental health issues after a video of Constable James Forcillo shooting the 18-year-old nine times on an empty Toronto streetcar went viral on YouTube. 

Yatim was brandishing a small knife and had reportedly exposed himself and acted aggressively toward other streetcar passengers before police arrived on the scene. 

On Monday, Forcillo was charged with second-degree murder in Yatim’s death—only the second time in history a Toronto police shooting has led to a second-degree murder charge. He was granted bail on Tuesday. 

The case has drawn comparisons to that of Edmund Yu and others suffering from mental illness who have been killed by police with seemingly unnecessary lethal force. Yu, who suffered from schizophrenia, was shot to death after threatening police with a small hammer on a Toronto bus in 1997.

Coleman says cases like these have done much to raise awareness about the need for improved police training when it comes to interacting with those who are mentally ill. 

“[Such deaths] seem to be far too common in the recent past, particularly in Toronto, which has really put these tragedies front and centre in the public mind,” he says. “It’s a very topical situation that we need to get a better handle on, that’s for sure.”

Inquest, Training Review

In Toronto, several moves are afoot that could lead to a better police training in communication techniques.

Shortly after the Yatim incident, the Toronto coroner called for an inquest into three recent deaths of mentally ill people at the hands of police: Michael Eligon, a 29-year-old shot near Toronto East General Hospital in his hospital gown wielding a pair of scissors; Reyal Jardine-Douglas, 25, shot by police as he fled from a Toronto bus in 2010; and Sylvia Klibingaitis, 52, shot by police in 2011.

In addition, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair and Ontario Ombudsman André Marin will review how all Ontario police forces train their officers for encounters with the mentally ill. Blair also recently appointed retired judge Dennis O’Connor to look into how police officers interact with the mentally ill.

Coleman himself has been asked by the Mental Health Commission to review entry-level police training and practices in relation to the mentally ill. He says one of the most important improvements would be to standardize education and training across Canada. 

“[Training] ranges from really good to barely adequate in some places,” says Coleman, adding that standardize training for all police employees—from dispatch to frontline officers—would help ensure clear lines of communication and understanding. 

Coleman says that although police officers can’t be expected to become mental health experts, they will inevitably need to play the role of social worker in their job, and should prepare for that. 

“I explain to police officers—and they squirm when I tell them—that police officers are social workers. They’re social workers with unique powers and unique authorities … but they are social workers.”

Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel