RCMP should abandon 'command and control' approach for people in crisis: watchdog
VANCOUVER -- The typical “command and control” posture used by Mounties when responding to 911 calls just doesn’t work for wellness checks or people in crisis, and can lead to unreasonable use of force, says the national police force’s main watchdog.
A better approach in those cases is to use teams of officers and mental health professionals, says the chair of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission — an approach that hasn’t been available in several high-profile B.C. cases.
“With respect to interacting with people in crisis, the commission’s findings have consistently highlighted concerns about police adopting a ‘command and control’ approach — an authoritative style of dealing with a non-compliant person,” said Michelaine Lahaie in a statement.
“The commission’s reports have repeatedly found that this ‘command and control’ approach has lead to the RCMP’s unreasonable use of force in apprehending persons in crisis."
The chair of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission says she’s found 14 cases in the past five years that fit the pattern of using "unreasonable" force in a wellness check.
Her comments come after a wave of publicity in cases across the country, including the cases of Mona Wang in Kelowna, who was dragged by an officer through her apartment's hallways wearing only pants and a bra. In Nanaimo, a call for help to Shanna Blanchard was met with force by Mounties. Video shows officers dragged her, bleeding, from her home instead.
In Kelowna, a dual team of a police officer and a mental health nurses had been built, but it was not staffed the day of Wang's call. There is no such team in Nanaimo. The patchwork of services in B.C. means whether a call for help will be met with such a team depends on what city you are in and what time you call. A top B.C. Mountie has called for more such teams.
Publicity around other cases across the country have shone a spotlight on RCMP use of force, including the shootings of Rodney Levi in and Chantel Moore in New Brunswick.
Canada’s largest psychiatric facility, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, has also demanded that officers be removed from the front lines during an emergency response to a mental health issue. Lahaie referred to that call in her response, also pointing out that repeated investigations have determined that the “command and control” response doesn’t work.
Lahaie referred to the case of Robert Dziekanski, who was tasered and died at Vancouver International Airport in 2007. In that case, the Braidwood Commission found it "clear that the 'command and control' philosophy underlying police recruit training, however appropriate generally, is both inappropriate and counterproductive when dealing with emotionally disturbed people.”
And in a 2020 report by the CRCC, Lahaie recommended the RCMP work to create an alternative health-care-related response, pointing to less use of force and fewer trips to the hospital, less time spent by police responding to such incidents, fewer arrests and apprehensions, and an increase of referrals to mental health resources.
“I recommend that the RCMP consider amending their policies to limit police involvement to cases where it is necessary based on criminality or a risk to public safety. I await the Commissioner’s response to my report,” Lahaie wrote.
On a request from CTV News, B.C.’s police watchdog, the Independent Investigations Office, said that in the fiscal year 2019-2020, it investigated 15 cases that started with a wellness check. A person in custody died in 11 of those cases, but none of those cases involved a death caused by police, the agency found.
The IIO’s chief civilian director, Ron MacDonald, told CTV News the deaths didn’t seem to follow a geographical pattern. He did say that it was worth discussing how best to respond to cases involving an emotionally disturbed person.
“While the police are the best people to call if there’s a threat of violence, the use of additional resources being available can be an asset in those cases. The police would welcome that and the discussion we’re having around this is a good one,” he said.
The Vancouver Police Department, which has a dual police and nurse mental health team called Car 87, told CTV News that in the 9,825 calls listed as “check wellbeing” in 2019, only one indicates the suspect was injured by police, in that case during a strike to the suspect’s ear.
Car 87 responded to 1,093 calls in 2019, the VPD said. In the Assertive Community Treatment Team, two police officers work with 10 to 12 medical professionals, including psychiatrists, social workers and nurses. The ACT responded to 1,575 calls in 2019.
Another VPD unit, the Assertive Outreach Team, pairs psychiatrists, nurses, clinical supervisors, and police officers, and proactively reaches out to patients with complex mental health issues with a history of police involvement. The AOT responded to 3,207 calls in 2019.