WATERLOO -- Police officers should not be the primary responders to mental health or distress calls, the head of an association representing police chiefs in Ontario says.

Gary Conn, the president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police and the police chief for Chatham-Kent said officers are not “subject matter experts” when it comes to mental health calls.

He added there are other social services that have “far better training” than police officers.

“These calls are very challenging, very difficult for our members,” Conn said. “They are very dynamic.”

This comes on the heels of two police-involved shootings this week in the Waterloo-Wellington region.

On Sunday, Mathias Bunyan, a Fergus man, was shot and killed by an Ontario Provincial Police officer.

Police said Bunyan was armed with two knives. His family said he was struggling with mental health issues.

On Wednesday, a Waterloo regional police officer shot a man in distress who was threatening officers with a weapon. The man is in hospital with serious injuries.

“If the officer perceives grievous bodily harm or death to either themselves or any member of the public, they may have to use that level of force,” Conn said.

He said mental health calls are one of the most challenging calls for officers as they unfold quickly, adding police shouldn’t be responding to them unless necessary.

“There are people who are far better trained, who I would refer to as subject matter experts, who should be the initial responders. They should be evaluating, assessing the situation, and then if they do require us to attend, they can make that call at that time,” he said.

However, he said police are often the first to respond to mental health calls as they are a service that’s available 24/7.

“A lot of the time when some of these calls are coming in at two or three o’clock in the morning, the only social emergency service which is available happens to be us," Conn said.

The Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo-Wellington (CMHAWW) has a partnership with local police services to help respond to mental health crises, called the Integrated Mobile Police and Crisis Team (IMPACT).

Helen Fishburn, the chief executive of CMHAWW, said it’s important to approach someone who is struggling with mental health with compassion and to put yourself in their shoes, adding being approached by a police officer during the most vulnerable state can escalate the situation.

“When police arrive with an IMPACT staff, it helps to provide that calm, that assurance, and that connection in that moment,” Fishburn said.

But she said there are holes in the system, as IMPACT staff can’t respond to every police call – only working 8 a.m to midnight.

She said more funding is needed to increase supports for mental health.

The mother of a man who was shot and killed by police in 2015 said hearing about the recent police shootings was emotional but added she had to look at the bigger picture.

Jackie Baker’s son Beau was killed by a Waterloo regional police officer outside a townhouse on Brybeck Crescent in Kitchener on the night of April 2, 2015. At the time, she said her son was in the middle of a mental health crisis when he advanced on the officer with a knife.

“It’s 2021 and individuals in distress are still being treated with force by police rather than help. There have been countless recommendations by countless coroner juries … are they being heard? I feel bad that another family has to go through this. I’d like for all members of our community to be safe," Baker said in a statement.


If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources that are available.

Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645), Centre for Suicide Prevention (1-833-456-4566) or Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

If you need immediate assistance call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

Here 24/7 Canadian Mental Health Association line: Call Here 24/7 at 1-844-HERE-247 (437-3247)