Edmonton police plan to enhance training for frontline officers responding to mental health complaints.
The move comes as a new report shows Mental Health Act calls are the second most frequent scenarios where frontline officers used force.
The new figures on use-of-force were presented to the Edmonton police commission on Thursday.
Use of force or control tactics range from physically holding someone to strikes, joint manipulation and conducted energy weapons (CEW), or what many refer to as Tasers.
Alberta’s Mental Health Act allows police to arrest someone believed to be suffering from a mental health disorder.
In the first half of 2019, police used control tactics during 86 mental health complaints.
Control tactics were only used more in cases involving assault with a weapon which led to 91 reports being filed in the same time period.
“We do a very good job of that in recruit training but for the general membership later on, it’s a reminder of the issues that we’re dealing with in the city and a better understanding of how we can de-escalate that better,” said Insp. Trevor Hermanutz, with the professional development branch, told reporters after the meeting.
“How I, as a police officer, can go there and deal with the person with a certain type of mental health issue. What works best for that person in that particular instance. If it lessens the need for a control tactic with them, that’s the goal.”
He said many of the calls about mental health have to do with making sure a person doesn’t harm themselves or the people around them.
If it lessens the need for a control tactic with them, that’s the goal– Insp. Trevor Hermanutz
“It’s what we need to do absolutely, it’s a great idea,” police chief Dale McFee said when asked about the training.
“We refresh all of the other things. We refresh firearms training on an annualized basis. All of our use of force tactics are refreshed.”
Criminal defence lawyer Derek Anderson works with a significant number of clients who have mental health issues, from relatively minor anxiety concerns to major disorders that make navigating day-to-day life a challenge.
He said a better understanding of mental health issues can make a big difference when it comes to police interactions.
“I mean just in terms of the officers’ ability to properly identify the circumstance and to use the skills necessary to de-escalate the situation,” Anderson said, pointing to the use of dogs as an example.
“People who are in the middle of mental health crises will respond typically better to a police dog than to a police officer who is putting the grip on them physically and trying to force them to the ground to get them under control simply because as a matter of common sense, you see a dog, you’re going to respond more positively to a dog.”
As police become better trained in identifying emergent mental health crises, and responding accordingly, there will be and already has been, a reduction in charges such as obstruction and assaulting a peace officer, Anderson added.
Use of force down
Despite a climb in Edmonton’s population and a slight rise in police files, the report showed use of force occurrences were down overall. Control tactic use declined by two per cent from 1,153 in 2018 to 1,130 in 2019.
Officers pulling guns from their holsters also occurred less frequently from 443 times in the first half of 2018 to 378 times in the same time period in 2019.
In contrast, the presence of police dogs climbed from 188 in the first half of 2018 to 229, or a rise of 21.8 percent, in the same time period. Use of CEWs was slightly up compared to last year, from 72 to 93.
Hermanutz credited both the increased use of dogs and CEWs with de-escalation.
“People will see that red dot and it’s surprising what that red dot sometimes will do to de-escalate a situation,” Hermanutz said. “Where you hear a dog barking and you know what’s going to come next if they deploy their dogs, so that helps with de-escalation.”
He said Tasers can also mitigate the need to become physical with someone which can increase the chances of injury to both parties.
A lot of effort goes into ensuring officers receive proper training, he added.
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