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Protesters Demand full inquiry Into Deaths of Mentally Ill Individuals Involving Police After Man Shot Dead

Originally Published by The Ryerson Free Press

by Eric Mark Do


The police shooting death of Michael Eligon earlier in February prompted about 60 demonstrators to protest outside Toronto Police Headquarters on February 10. While Eligon’s mental-health status has not been disclosed, the protesters called for a formal public inquiry into cases where mentally ill individuals died during interactions with police. Many said that these deadly interactions are part of systemic issues that need to be addressed.

“In the 20 years that I have represented exclusively individuals with mental-health issues, I have not seen this spate of death in this city,” said advocacy lawyer Anita Szigeti. “I think that the city of Toronto now needs to acknowledge that its police service is having a problem, of causing the death of individuals in mental-health crisis during these interactions.”

Also in attendance was Ann McGillivary, whose 45-year-old son Charlie died during an altercation with police in August. Charlie McGillivary was mentally disabled.

Lawyer Mercedes Perez is the past vice-chair of the Mental-health Legal Committee. “Michael Eligon was a person obviously in distress wearing a hospital gown, obviously afraid and confused,” she said.

Eligon, 29, had fled from Toronto East General Hospital after being held for three days due to undisclosed reasons. He was said to be armed with two scissors and had an encounter at a convenience store which left the clerk with a small cut on his hand, which didn’t require stitches.

He ended up in the Danforth and Coxwell avenues area. There, Eligon was surrounded by almost a dozen police officers who “pointed their guns at his head,” Perez said. He did not comply with shouted orders to drop the scissors and was shot three times in the upper-torso. 

Police cannot comment on the case while it is under investigation, but Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash spoke of a potential scenario. “If someone is rushing at you with a knife, the fact that they may be mentally ill doesn’t matter at that point,” he said. “The officer has to stop the threat with as minimal force as possible.”

According to Perez, minimal force is not used. “Police are not trained to shoot someone in the foot, they’re trained to shoot to kill,” she said. “That’s the use of force model that they have, they’re taught to aim for a person’s torso.”

Szigeti and her colleagues’ call for a broad-scale inquiry emphasized the need to review police training and procedures related to dealing with individuals in crisis.

“We’re constantly reviewing our training,” Pugash said. “We work very closely with…groups who work with the mentally ill, and the private and public sectors and work with experts from outside to examine our training and improve our training.”

A release on the Toronto Police website states that, “Every uniformed officer is required to undergo two days of intensive training and re-qualification each year.” The day before the rally, police held an information session and showed members of the media demonstrations of police interactions with individuals in crisis. 

Toronto police officers’ additional training on how to interact with people with mental illnesses “goes above and beyond what is mandated by the province,” said Training Const. Michael Stavrakis.

More should be done, said Anna Willats. “Make crisis intervention training mandatory,” she said. “Alternative dispute resolution training, (should also be) mandatory. Before you can call yourself a police officer you have to have those skills.” 

Currently the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team (MCIT), where an officer is partnered with a registered psychiatric nurse, is active in nine of the 17 police divisions.    

While the situations that police officers encounter may be different than those experienced inside a mental-health facility, a look into the latter provides some perspective into daily interactions with mental-health patients.

Outbursts from patients should be handled in a calm manner, said Nancy Tran, a nurse who spent time taking care of patients at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Queen Street West location. “Just approach them in a calm manner and listen to them,” she said. “Don’t agitate them, and try not to engage with them too much.”

The Toronto Star interviewed the man who notified police of Eligon’s presence in the neighbourhood. Vince, who did not want his last name to be used, witnessed the moments before Eligon was shot. “You could tell he was panicking,” Vince said. “Everybody was screaming at him.”


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Eric Mark Do (Eric Mark Do)
Toronto
Member since March 2012

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Journalism student at Ryerson University. I cover many protests in and around Toronto.

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