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The Shawnigan Lake RCMP detachment serves the southern communities of the Cowichan region, including Mill Bay, where Chris lived.

How much training do RCMP officers in B.C. get to deal with people in mental health crisis?

After police shot a young man in distress on Vancouver Island, The Discourse asked the RCMP how its officers are equipped to handle such scenarios.

On Nov. 10, 2018, RCMP officers entered a mobile home near Shawnigan Lake, B.C., with the intention of arresting Chris Bloomfield, 27.

Bloomfield was in a state of psychosis after days of using illicit drugs, his mother Marilyn Bloomfield says. That’s why she went to the police to ask for help getting her son to the hospital, she says. She didn’t expect him to end up dead.

In a press release from the day of the incident, the RCMP says Chris advanced on police “with an edged weapon.” The officers then attempted to deploy a taser “without success,” it says. And then “shots were fired by police.”

Bloomfield died in hospital shortly afterwards.

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is still investigating the shooting death, as it does all police-involved incidents of death or serious harm in the province. The RCMP declined to respond to specific questions about the incident, citing the ongoing investigation.

But a spokesperson for the RCMP did answer some of The Discourse’s questions by email about how police are trained to respond to people in mental health crisis.

The case has raised questions for some people about how much training RCMP officers receive to handle cases where people are in distress.

The Discourse researched this question more broadly to paint a fuller picture of what we know about police response to people in distress in Canada. This has been an issue of concern for several organizations, including the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and Pivot Legal Society.

A 2017 CBC investigation found that more than 70 per cent of the nearly 500 people who were killed by police in Canada from 2000 to 2017 were suffering from mental health or substance use issues.

The following is a summary of what we learned about RCMP training in B.C. as it relates to mental health responses and use of force. It is an excerpt from a larger story that delves into who Chris Bloomfield was, his struggles and his contributions to his community, and how he died. You can read the whole story here.

All RCMP officers in B.C. now have to complete some mandatory training on how to deal with people in the midst of a mental health crisis.

According to a statement emailed to The Discourse by Corporal Tammy Douglas, Crisis Intervention and De-escalation Training was mandatory for all frontline police officers and their supervisors in the province by 2015. Recertification is required every three years.

The RCMP now provides this training to all its officers in B.C., Douglas says, and the mandatory recertification process is part of their Operational Skills Training. That training includes both online and “scenario-based” components, which “specifically includes a mental health-related incident,” Douglas says.

A 2014 report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada says all police forces in B.C. began training their new police officer candidates in January 2012, as well as existing first responder police officers and frontline police supervisors. “As time goes on, an increasing number of officers will have completed the training at the academy level, and will only be participating in the mandatory every-three-years requalification aspect of the program,” the report noted five years ago.

The mandatory province-wide training program, which the report says was developed by police personnel with contributions from “mental health professionals, health services and mental health agencies …  and people living with mental illnesses,” includes a three-to-four-hour online course, as well as seven hours of in-person training in class and through role-playing exercises.

The online sessions cover specific mental illnesses and their symptoms, as well as techniques for de-escalation, which the Mental Health Commission defines as using verbal and non-verbal communication to bring the level of tension in a situation down. Although de-escalation is a component of police training generally, this training specifically focuses on techniques and strategies when approaching someone in emotional distress.

The 2014 report reviewed police training in mental health across Canada after seeing  “a significant increase” in the number of interactions between police and people in mental health crisis — and rising concern over potential negative outcomes of these interactions, including deaths. It called B.C.’s training arguably “one of the most advanced and promising programs.”

Even before this crisis intervention training became mandatory in B.C., the RCMP revised its own general use-of-force training and policies in 2007 to emphasize “de-escalation and communication,” Douglas wrote in her email.

Recertification in the Incident Management/Intervention Model is required every year for all RCMP officers across Canada, she says. The model is designed to give officers the tools they need to assess risk in different situations — and make decisions on the level of force required.

According to the model, police may shoot their guns only when someone presents a threat of “grievous bodily harm or death.” In all cases, officers are expected to “assess and manage risk through justifiable and reasonable intervention.” Any police intervention will be “measured against what a reasonable, trained, prudent police officer would do faced with a similar set of circumstances,” according to the RCMP’s description of the model.

According to a 2013 article in the Toronto Star and similar accounts from the U.S., police officers are not trained to shoot to wound by, say, aiming for an arm or a leg. They are trained to shoot at the chest — the easiest target — and keep shooting until the threat is no longer a threat.

“Incidents involving police use of force are complex, dynamic and constantly evolving, oftentimes in a highly-charged atmosphere. Police officers must make split-second decisions when it comes to use of force,” Douglas wrote in her email to The Discourse.

“The RCMP is continually assessing its training, and in BC has created a committee of its Mental Health Liaison Officers to help improve the present Crisis Intervention and De-escalation course,” she continued.

The RCMP also participates in several committees and studies, she noted, including a Simon Fraser University on the impact “of persons with mental health issues on front line policing services.”

In remote communities, RCMP officers in B.C. “must draw upon their experience and training alongside other community resources, such as nurses, physicians, family and friends” to connect people in need with health care services, she added.   

“Our police officers frequently go above and beyond what is expected of them in these situations, taking extra care and time to build relationships with people who suffer frequent mental health crises in their communities,” Douglas said.

Not enough, some say

Some police watchdogs say the current training isn’t good enough, and it just isn’t working.

“The sheer fact that people continue to be shot and killed by police while in the midst of a mental health crisis is obvious evidence that we need to find a better solution,” says Douglas King, the executive director of the Together Against Poverty Society in Victoria. King previously worked as the police accountability lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver.

“The hope was, for many years, that if every officer was trained in crisis de-escalation training, you’d start to see a decrease in these incidents, you’d start to see them in a different light, or they’d start to unravel differently when they occurred,” says King.

“Despite that shift, in adding on secondary training, it hasn’t had the intended result. We haven’t necessarily seen a fundamental change in how these interactions occur. The number of police-involved shootings has not gone down,” he says. “It doesn’t seem to be working. And for me, I think that’s an indication that secondary training is still not overriding the primary training.”

A CBC investigation counted 461 fatal encounters with police between 2000 and 2017 — more than 70 per cent of the victims suffered from mental health or substance use issues.

The investigation also found the number of fatal encounters with police is climbing. “Even when adjusted for population growth over the 17-year window, the number of people dying in encounters with police has increased steadily,” reporters Jacques Marcoux and Katie Nicholson wrote.

“The challenge with use of force policies is that they do not acknowledge the distinction between interventions with persons who do not exhibit mental illness and/or concurrent disorders and with those who do,” according to a 2008 policy statement from the Canadian Mental Health Association.

What might be an appropriate intervention for police dealing with normal resistance and aggression, may not be appropriate for dealing with people in mental health distress, the report suggests. “For example a person experiencing hallucinations and/or delusions may well exhibit active resistance or signs of aggression in response to police commands or physical control out of very real fear; applying usual police command and control tactics can escalate the fear and the crisis reaction.”

“The crime response is almost the opposite of what needs to happen in a mental health situation,” says Camia Weaver, who authored that policy statement and was at the time the justice advisor to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“Police are geared towards getting this done fast, using authority — generally — to control a situation, and getting things wrapped up as quickly as possible, and moving along to the next thing, which can be very harmful in a mental health situation,” Weaver says.

“People, if they’ve had previous experiences with police that were not good, that’s a real problem,” she continues, “and approaching in that way can also be frightening and can be seen as being antagonistic or aggressive.”

Effective crisis intervention requires not being authoritarian, and instead taking time, having patience, and working towards collaborative solutions with the individual, Weaver says. “It’s a very different approach that most police officers are not used to, are not properly trained for.”

Weaver says she’s not impressed with the progress of police forces on this issue to date. “I don’t think we’re doing a great job in Canada, to be honest. I don’t think there is sufficient focus on dealing with these situations in the most effective way. There isn’t really an appetite for it.”

“This situation in Shawnigan Lake is another example of one where they say the police officers went into the home and the person had an edged weapon and advanced on them,” King says.

“And again, that’s the mathematical equation — A plus B equals C — edged weapon, physical movement towards the officer, they will get shot. The police just need to start really thinking about ways that they can break that cycle.”

What works?

In Canada and around the world, police departments are considering and using different approaches. In the United Kingdom, police earned praise in 2016 for a viral video showing cops disarming a man aggressively wielding a machete. Despite several advances on police with the weapon, no shots were fired. Eventually, more police arrived and surrounded the man, protecting themselves with shields. In the U.K. most frontline police officers don’t carry a firearm at all.

Weaver is now a sessional instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley in B.C., and last year submitted a master’s thesis comparing different strategies for police response to mental health crises.

“What I have seen work the best is the Crisis Intervention Team model, which has a selected and highly trained core of officers whose primary role is to respond to mental health issues in the community,” she says.

That model, also known as the Memphis Model, is now used in police forces in 49 out of 50 states in the U.S., and in four countries, according to its own website. But many police forces say they’re using a crisis-intervention model when, in fact, it does not fulfill the requirements to fully qualify, says Weaver. She says she’s not aware of any Canadian police forces that have fully adopted the model.

The idea is to train at least 20 per cent of a police force as mental health crisis intervention specialists through an intensive 40-hour training program. Then, as experts in this area for their detachments, the officers are called on to respond to people in crisis, giving them ample opportunities to practice and expand their skills and get to know individuals who regularly require this type of service, Weaver says.

They’re meant to work as a team, sharing knowledge and skills, and coordinating with other service providers in the community. Ideally, these crisis intervention specialists are available around the clock to respond in an emergency and be a resource for other officers, she adds.

There are limitations to this model, particularly in a small place like Shawnigan Lake, which as of 2016 had 11 officers in its detachment. In small detachments it can be hard to achieve 24/7 coverage of trained officers, Weaver says.

But the model can still be applied, she says. It just relies to a greater degree on coordination with neighbouring detachments and related service providers in the community. “You can have a partnership that is community-based that provides sufficient support and coverage to make sure that everything that needs to happen happens.”

King, of the Together Against Poverty Society, suggests there are advantages to working in a small community, too. “In small areas it is actually relatively easy to get to know everybody in your community, and to know who has mental health issues, to know who has the propensity to potentially be involved in this kind of situation,” he says.

All it takes is a little creativity to think about heading a risky situation off at the pass, he says. Other community resources, including local mental health professionals and social workers and people with a relationship with the individual in crisis, can also be called upon to help respond, he notes. “So in a crisis scenario, the police officer can confidently draw back and say, ‘I’m going to get this person for you to talk to, let’s work this out.’ That in itself can be a hugely de-escalating tactic.”

Alternatives to police intervention are needed, too, says King.

“There’s an inherent problem with having police be involved with de-escalation,” he says, “and one reason that police can be ineffective at de-escalating is that their presence in itself is a form of escalation.”


The above excerpt is from an in-depth feature written by reporter Jacqueline Ronson. You can read the full story here.