Dead Wrong

November 1, 2007

Paul Boyd wasn't a gangster, a car thief, or a killer-not the kind of guy police spend their careers putting away. A 39-year-old animation artist, Boyd was, in the words of his family, "intelligent, gentle, humorous, and compassionate." But one evening in August, on Granville near 15th, Boyd swung at police officers with a lock on the end of a chain, knocking one unconscious and hurting another. Fellow officers shot him dead. Witnesses counted eight shots or more.

Details of the case will take years to emerge. There will be a coroner's inquest and an internal investigation by the VPD. But Boyd's mental illness-he had bipolar disorder-almost certainly played a role in his final moments. Police shootings are rare in B.C., but when they occur there's roughly a 50 percent chance the victim suffers from an acute mental illness. Unless we change the way we deal with such diseases, there will be more tragedies like Boyd's.

Police are increasingly forced into a role they're not suited for-to be caregivers instead of law enforcers. They're handling an ever-growing number of mental health crises. VPD spokesperson Howard Chow says that last year the VPD dealt with 200 mental health-related incidents per month. This year, it's more than 300. And these are just the reported incidents, he points out. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that police are the first point of access to mental health services for 30 percent of people with serious mental illnesses.

It's a situation that cries out for deeper reforms than just adjusting how police respond. Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill over recent decades has put more people back into communities, but there hasn't been a sufficient increase in community mental health services, according to Camia Weaver of the CMHA's B.C. division. She runs the association's Mental Health and Police Project. She says crisis lines, emergency rooms, and mental health teams are sometimes poorly integrated. Hospitals often lack the resources to deal with any but the most acute cases. Yet there's little community-based care. "You need these services if you want people to live in the community successfully," says Weaver. "Otherwise, police end up being the first responders." 

We need safe havens, she says, that people can turn to before they require hospitalization. "Many people can tell when they're reaching crisis," she says. "But the difficulty in getting into the hospital, and sometimes the difficulty of the hospital environment, make it an unappealing resolution."

Adding to the volume of cases police contend with is the rise in homelessness. The GVRD's 2005 count found that homelessness in the region doubled between 2002 and 2005. When mentally ill people are homeless, they lose access to the support, medications, and treatments that help them manage their disorders.

The fact police are dealing with so many mental health crises is a sign the system is failing. In 2005, the B.C. Coroner's Service investigated four police shootings that occurred in 2003 and 2004. Three of the dead were mentally ill. Majencio Camaso, 33, was shot three times after his wife called 911 saying he was "out of control," and that it was a "medical emergency." Two other men with mental disorders were killed by police in separate incidents. Fourteen people died from police bullets in Vancouver between 1980 and 2002. More than half were mentally ill, according to Delta police Sgt. Richard Parent, who researched police shootings for his PhD in criminology.

Police have a growing arsenal of non-lethal weapons designed to reduce these killings, but by the time such gadgetry is deployed, the situation has often escalated too far. "They all have high failure rates," says Cst. Chow. "If somebody's coming at you with a baseball bat and you shoot him with a beanbag round, it's probable you're not going to stop him. The strongest weapon is our communication skills."

Vancouver police have been seeking better ways to manage their dealings with the mentally ill. One program is called Car 87. A plain-clothes officer trained in mental health pairs up with a psychiatric nurse to handle mental health emergencies. But the department's own officers want more to be done.

Weaver surveyed Vancouver patrol officers as part of her project to improve police interactions with the mentally ill. More than half of those surveyed wanted better training. Recruits are trained for six months at the Justice Institute, but only four hours of that is mental health training. "For six months, the direction is ‘contain and control' and ‘safety first'-your own and the public's safety," Weaver says. She argues this approach works well for criminals but not in a mental health situation. "When a person is in a mental health crisis you need to talk to them and decrease the level of fear and tension."

People in mental crisis are not generally violent. If they behave so, they're likely acting out of fear rather than aggression. "If you take away this fear," Weaver says, "you're going to have a much better outcome."

The end of Paul Boyd's life came down to a split-second decision. Earlier in the day, Boyd was in a bad state. Friends tried to calm him. But were emergency dispatchers aware it was a mental health crisis? Did they know what questions to ask the 911 caller? Police told the media they were responding to an assault. Weaver wants to know if mental health emergency services was ever called, and how the first responding officers approached Boyd.

"The point, to me, is that the incident didn't start with the shooting," she says. "It ended with the shooting. Every one of those spots is a place where this could have been a success story."

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