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Police response to mental health calls back in spotlight after Kitchener shooting

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A 31-year-old was fatally shot by police on Monday in Kitchener, nearly a decade after 20-year-old man was shot and killed by a police officer on the same street.

The Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) said they cannot comment on Monday’s shooting because the case is in the hands of the Special Investigations Unit, but said it’s top of mind.

“I just want to acknowledge the tragedy to our community, the affected individuals, family and the community at large, recognizing this is a very tragic circumstances for those involved, including our members and our service broadly,” WRPS Chief Mark Crowell said during a police services board meeting on Wednesday.

Similar to the death of Beau Baker in 2015, the family of the man killed on Monday said he was having a mental health crisis.

Lawyer in Beau Baker inquest weighs in

Last year, an inquest into Baker’s death resulted in 24 recommendations made to prevent similar deaths.

The lawyer who represented the Baker family during the inquest said one major thing that emerged during the inquest was that de-escalation often means something different for police versus the public.

“People with lived experiences see de-escalation as attempting to get that individual to a state of calmness, right? Whereas police de-escalation is only about ensuring that that individual complies with the command,” Asha James said.

Police have mental health team

The Baker inquest led to recommendations for regional police to revamp training on de-escalation and improve interactions with people experiencing a mental health crisis.

WRPS said it introduced a Mental Health Impact Team with the Canadian Mental Health Association that is available from 8 a.m. to midnight.

“We want to continue to build out those options that will, I imagine, in the future, provide police-free responses so that we have mental health professionals and subject matter expertise with our partner agencies that can assist,” Crowell said.

Crowell said mental health professionals respond with police when the circumstances allow. He said the mental health professional themselves determine if it is safe for them to attend a scene.

James said the issue should be studied further.

“To really look at what is appropriate in the circumstances and if in the circumstances it may not be appropriate for that individual to be front and center in trying to de-escalate the situation, but they may be present, they may be on the phone,” James said.

Local group says police mental health model is not the answer

In a statement released late Wednesday, the African, Caribbean, Black Network (ACB) condemned the Monday shooting and pointed to other instances of police violence against Black people in Waterloo Region.

It said the police’s mental health team is not an acceptable substitute for well-resourced community-led supports and services.

“This model increases police harm to Black, Indigenous, and other communities,” ACB said.

“Police ‘collaborations’ extend policing into healthcare and social services, enhancing and expanding surveillance of Black, Indigenous and marginalized groups who are already and routinely targeted by police violence.”

Inquest recommendations not mandatory

It's not mandatory for inquest recommendations to be implemented. James said it could be helpful for the recommendations to be followed closer.

“What do we as the community have to do in order to require compliance with the recommendations? Because they're not mandatory,” James said.

James also said a recent inquest into the death of a Toronto man recommended the province needs to ensure there are supports available for family members who contact police and a loved one dies as a result. She believes it is another important recommendation to follow.

“I cannot begin to comprehend the level of grief and guilt that family members must feel when they reach out to police for support and it ends up in that person losing their life," James said.

An inquest is held any time a person is killed while in custody or being detained, or when the use of force of a police officer causes a death. An inquest into Monday’s death can be expected. The province’s police watchdog is also investigating. However, the Special Investigations Unit said it would likely take weeks before they complete their investigation.

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