The TTC, the mentally ill man and the police

By Pat Watson Wednesday February 11 2015 in Opinion
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The subway train had already been sitting for more than 10 minutes when this commuter got on. Almost immediately, there came these words of warning from another commuter already in the train: “Don’t go into the third car. Someone in there is causing a disruption and hitting people.”


A look toward the third car revealed no particular activity, except a man in a red jacket standing in the aisle, looking somewhat lost. Other people continued to board the detained subway train while over the loudspeaker system could be heard one of the standard announcements that there was a delay at this particular station because of a passenger disruption.


The TTC was having a mental health issue.


The answer to a quick question to the subway driver about the predicted length of delay was that it would depend on how long it would take for the police to arrive.


When the contingent of police finally did arrive, they went into standard operating mode. They yelled aggressively and repeatedly at the man in the red jacket to get down on the floor. He did not. He started spinning around and looked very confused.


This could not possibly have been anyone’s idea of defusing the situation. It was trained and standardized brute force. This procedure was not among the recommendations from Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci following the police shooting death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim. Iacobucci recommended officers be trained in de-escalation techniques and communication as response rather than force.


Yatim was the youth shot and killed by a police officer inside a late night TTC streetcar on Dundas St. West in July 2013. He was said to have been experiencing mental illness. The shooting occurred within minutes of police arriving on the scene. Thanks to a civilian video recording of the incident, there appeared to be dozens of police officers present at the time of the shooting. One officer has since been charged.


In the case of the man in the red jacket, an African Canadian man, by the way, the group of police officers formed a circle to pen him in. In short order, his hands were pulled behind him, he was handcuffed and roughly hustled off the train.


As the train left the station, now more than 25 minutes after it had first arrived, the police could be seen in a cluster standing over the man who still had that confused expression on his face.


Mental illness is not a criminal offence, but the standard response from the law-and-order operatives within society seems to be oblivious to that reality, despite the growing canon of studies and recommendations regarding how best to respond to people in these states of disturbance.


In this particular instance there did not appear to be a trained mental health worker accompanying the group of officers. There certainly was no attempt to calm and reassure the mentally ill man, which is the recommended best practices approach.


With the feeling of relief that the train was finally able to move also came the awareness that our convenience came at the expense of traumatizing and already ill person.


We should also understand that the brute force technique that is currently the standard among officers does harm not only to the intended target, but also to the officers who must function in this way. These high stress techniques employed day after day result in some officers developing forms of post-traumatic stress disorder.


During the recent mayoral campaign, David Soknacki rightly called for a review of our system and methods of current policing in this city. We desperately need this to happen.


Moments after that subway incident came another announcement that there was a delay at another subway station for another in the long list of reasons that cause daily delays on the TTC.


A note on departures…

High profile Conservative John Baird’s sudden announcement that he is stepping down as Foreign Affairs minister has many guessing at the reason. Baird was among the loudest, most assertive voices in Mike Harris’ so-called “Common Sense Revolution” when the Progressive Conservatives ran the government in Ontario during the mid-1990s and he carried that energy to the federal level. With federal elections due in the fall, one political observer asked, did he jump or was he pushed?


Pat Watson is the author of the e-book, In Through A Coloured Lens. Twitter@patprose.

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