Jordan: It’s uh, it’s not the sort of phrase you expect to end with a killing.
News Clips: An emotional rally today outside the apartment building where police killed Ejaz Ahmed Choudry. The special investigations unit that looks into shootings by police, says officers were called to the Mississauga residence to check on the wellbeing of a man.
Quebec’s police watchdog has been asked to investigate a police killing of a woman by an officer in the Edmundston, New Brunswick police force.
First nations groups have identified the woman as Chantel Moore. Police say they were responding to a request for a wellness check.
This is the video that has Kelowna and the rest of the country talking today and questioning police officer’s involvement in wellness checks. The surveillance video shows Browning pulling Wang, who is lying on her stomach and not moving, down a carpeted hallway and later into the lobby. Wang is handcuffed and only wearing pants and a bra. When Wang lifts her head slightly, Browning forces it back down to the floor with her foot.
Jordan: In a perfect world a wellness check would be exactly what it says. A person seems like they’re having trouble or are in crisis, so we call someone to check on them, to help them get well, if they need it. But if you’ve had even half an ear open recently, you know that’s not what happens.
In almost every municipality, a wellness check means the police are coming, but why? Is that really the best way to check on someone in trouble? How is a wellness check supposed to be conducted? Is there a blueprint for it?
How are officers trained for them? How are those officers trained about mental health in general? And the fundamental question, what do we have to do differently? Because this isn’t working.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Uzma Williams teaches a mental health class for students and prospective police officers at MacEwan university in Edmonton. She’s also the lead editor of a compilation entitled, Police Response to Mental Health in Canada. Hi Uzma.
Uzma: Hi Jordan.
Jordan: Can you start by just explaining the term wellness check? Is there a formal definition?
Uzma: Wellness checks are instigated when a person who cares about the person, either a friend or family, they notice that the person’s not doing good. And so they’re concerned about this person’s wellbeing and a police officer or police team is sent out to check on the person essentially.
Jordan: And we’ll get into why or why it shouldn’t be police in a little bit, but, And I know that the answer to this probably varies wildly depending on where you are and what you’re talking about. But once that call comes in, what’s supposed to happen. Can you kind of give me a hypothetical, walk me through it?
Uzma: Well, I don’t work for a police organization, so it’s difficult to say exactly what happens in each organization to respond to that call, but essentially a police officer or a police team that has mental health professionals on board with them, they go out, they do the wellness check on the individual. Once the police officers arrive on the scene, they have different dispositions they can use, they can take the individual over to a psychiatric facility to be assessed, they can tell them about the different resources if they don’t need to be taken in.
There’s a bunch of different options that people can take from there. No arrest needs to be made, even if a crime is committed.
Jordan: What kinds of things should officers, I guess, but also anyone else responding to these calls, be prepared for?
Uzma: Most officers they do a good job of understanding, okay, this is what I should expect. In any police job, however, there’s this level of uncertainty and not knowing what may happen. For example, a police call that’s a wellness check, anyone who’s experiencing extreme mental health symptoms, if they’re suicidal, they may become homicidal too. And I think that’s always on the mind of police officers, hence why they’re so tense when it comes to these calls. They probably have a level of fear in them because they all also want to return home to their families too.
Jordan: So what have we seen? And this is where it gets complicated, what have we seen recently with regards to wellness checks in Canada that have been answered by police?
Uzma: What we see is an escalation of issues. What I imagine is happening is we have more video cameras, we have more communication, and so these calls are actually coming more to light. I imagine these incidents occurred even before, but because we don’t have social media, we don’t have cameras everywhere, it was harder to bring these calls up to light.
Jordan: Well, how do these calls, just in recent weeks there’ve been I think four or five of them that have ended with the death of the person that officers were called to check on. How does a call like that go wrong?
Uzma: There’s a few things that go wrong. Unfortunately it’s very difficult for a police officer, especially based on their training, when to decipher, ‘okay, when does this mental health call become a critical situation and where I need to respond with control and whatnot?’ There’s a very vague line and they have to react within a blink of the eye. And therefore this training, this cross training with mental health is so important. We keep saying that police officers, leave mental health out of it. They don’t need to respond. They’re law enforcement, that’s their job. And that’s what the public believes. And that’s what a lot of police officers believe. However in mental health calls, in any sort of police call, there is a very great likelihood that mental health is an issue. Therefore, we are never, ever going to be able to intertwine out the calls that are mental health. Some are very clear, but some are not.
Therefore, that training is so important. So when police get to that call, they need to be aware of a lot of the symptoms that people who are experiencing a mental health crisis are experiencing. For example, if they have schizophrenia, they could be experiencing delusions that people are out to kill them and hurt them.
They could be experiencing hallucinations, which are either visual, or they’re auditory most of the time. So they’re hearing or seeing things that don’t actually exist. It would be like you and I having this conversation right now, but you having music on and listening to both at the same time or having two dual conversations.
And so with training, that’s exactly what police needs to understand. They need to understand the perspective of the person who they’re going into the room with. At the same time, trying to balance out, ‘okay, when does this become a critical control situation versus the escalation?’ And it spins off and on.
So when they’re deescalating a situation, that call, as I said again, can turn to a situation where they do need to take control and do need to take charge. But as soon as that situation is under control and they’re in charge again, they need to go back to their professional skills where they’re once again, and maybe this is after arrest and taking the person down to the station, having them medically assessed. Saying now, ‘okay, what resources do you need? How can I help you?’ And in a lot of these videos, you see that after the person’s been arrested, there’s still force applied. That is completely unnecessary, and a lot of police officers who are hard working, and are very aware of their biases and challenge their biases and maybe have no biases or minimal biases. They acknowledge that, ‘Hey, this police officer is out of line.’ They should not be stepping on the person’s head post-arrest, they should not be applying any extra force once that person’s under control.
The most effective police calls that I’ve heard about have been when the police officer, they’ve got down to the person’s level, sat next to them, offered to hold their hand and just spoken with respect, with dignity, being very patient that’s key. So police officers, they need to be very mindful of their body stance, their volume, their tone, their choice of words, to ensure they’re not ridiculing the person. I think that scares people is their weapons and their uniform. So again, being very mindful of those things, when you’re going into a police call.
Jordan: Leaving aside the specialists who work with police or are inside the police department and deal with mental health, how much training, like the stuff you just described, does the average officer get? How much of that is mandatory?
Uzma: This is something that I’ve always been pointing out too, since I’ve started teaching at MacEwan and really started to look into this area. It really varies. To become a police officer, at least in some jurisdictions, you do not need any education, especially with the RCMP. A grade 12 diploma is sufficient. No postsecondary is required.
You can look at multiple areas of study and they’ll show you when you have a postsecondary education, especially in the arts area, you’re much less likely to show biases and have stigmas towards certain populations. And especially with the students who come to McCewan and whatnot, that’s what we try to squeeze out.
We try to take away those biases, those myths and beliefs that they’ve developed about mental health. Because these beliefs, they developed from popular culture from media and whatnot. And they’re often not truthful. Like when we look at people in movies and whatnot who have mental health concerns, they’re always showing to be the psycho or the killer.
The words that refer to them are wacko, lunatic or crazy. And those are very harmful words. And that’s what the police officer without education is going in with. And so when they come into MacEwan or any other program that teaches them about mental health, you learn about different cultures, about different, minority populations, about different disabilities as well. And so when you understand this stuff, you’re no longer scared of it. And that’s exactly what we try to do with our students. We say, okay, this is what schizophrenia looks like. These are the symptoms, this is what the person is experiencing. So we try to raise that level of empathy. And that knowledge and that understanding base. And that’s what removes them from being ignorant from being fearful of when they do go out and do their police calls.
Another issue that comes up in policing often is when police get into the police force, they start seeing people differently. Meaning they treat someone who is a typical regular person, for example, to someone who they label as junkies and whatnot. And I think those officers who do that, it’s very harmful, not only to the person, but to their profession. And it’s an injustice to other police officers who work really hard and who fight against all that. I can speak for myself, all the police officers that I work with, they come from a place of great empathy of great understanding and compassion.
And that’s what you need when you’re dealing with people who are struggling. So for the longest time, we’ve seen policing as law enforcement and many police officers believe, Hey, we should not be the psychiatrist and the psychologist in blue. We just need to do law enforcement, but we can’t squeeze that out.
Mental health will always be wrapped in with policing and that’s because police are typically the first point of contact for people who are experiencing a crisis.
Jordan: There’s been questions asked as to if it has to be that way. Should cops be the first response to mental health issues? And, and I guess my question is, would it be easier to have other people respond to these calls or to undertake what sounds to me like a monumental task of making sure that every police officer does require postsecondary education and mental health training?
Uzma: I think it’s necessary for police to have an education to understand these sorts of ideas, because a lot of the calls that go out, they have a huge element of mental health.
And again, that is something where we’ll always find ourselves. Because the general population, their understanding of mental health might be minimal. But for example, a lot of these people who are experiencing mental health concerns and to that degree, it’s because they’ve fallen through the loops, they themselves don’t understand mental health very well. Their families don’t understand mental health. And because it’s so stigmatized, you keep pushing it under the rug. You don’t want to deal with it, it’s hard. And so unfortunately if you let this unfold more and more, it comes down to a crisis situation. So even if we put less money into policing, more money into health and community and all that stuff, people are still gonna end up with the police. And therefore I do believe that the police, they need to be well-trained, it’s never going to be that police just respond to law enforcement. There’s always going to be an element of mental health and they need to have that skill. They need to, as I said, have understanding of symptoms and they need to know good crisis intervention, such as speaking well to the person, being mindful of their body and whatnot. And then also knowing, ‘Hey, when does this become once again a control issue where I need to calm the person, take control of the situation?’ And then I can go back into dealing with the mental health element.
Jordan: Well, you have prospective police officers in your class. How do they respond to the course? What kinds of questions do they ask? What do you see from them?
Uzma: I have many excellent students who go into policing. I keep in touch with these students regularly still. A lot of my students, when they first come in, they always say there is so much, we didn’t know about mental health and how it works and what it is.
And for me, it’s such a quick tour of what mental health is. Four months is not enough. They need much more, especially on an ongoing basis. So when my students come in, they’re passionate about it at the end. And I feel that they’ve challenged a lot of their own biases. So when they see someone walking down the street, fumbling, ‘Hey, maybe it’s an addiction that they’re experiencing.’ Which could be anybody.
It could be anybody in any line of work that experiences addiction or any mental health symptoms. And it could be a medical issue too. So when police are responding appropriately to those things, it impacts everyone everywhere. So if you look at all the George Floyd situations arising in America, even when we have community based policing, in some of the regions in Canada, we see all the, ‘Hey, let’s defund the police’, because a lot of community members, they see that as very representative of the entire police organization.
So when some of my students, they come out of the course, they actually start applying their knowledge to the workforce. It makes a big difference for them because they start going, ‘Hey, this is what I learned about’.
I don’t exactly remember what disorder this is. And they don’t need to identify it. They’re not psychologists. They will never need to be able to identify what disorder this is, but they will need to say, ‘okay, red flag’. I think this is a symptom of a mental health disorder.
This is what I need to do. Not swear at them. Not criticize them, not scare them even more, not to make them even more defensive. I just need to tell the person I’m here to help them. And I’m here to work with them. A lot of this goes back to the police officer’s personality and how open they are and how empathetic they are too, and their compassion levels.
Jordan: When you talk to those former students that you mentioned that you keep in contact with, what do they say about the culture towards mental health in the stations and units where they work? What do they see from the officers that haven’t had this training?
Uzma: It doesn’t take much time to spend amongst officers who are practicing to see, ‘Hey, where’s this person coming from?’
You can easily tell officers who are well-educated versus some who have zero education. You see it in their professionalism and their biases and their practices. Police officers who are educated, they’re much more open to talking about mental health, about knowing about mental health, they’re more open to diversity issues.
They’re less likely to marginalize people because they understand, ‘okay, this could have been anybody in this person’s shoes that’s experiencing this now.’
Jordan: Do we have any examples of places that have required this kind of training? Made it formal, made it a part of the code of conduct for cops? Do we have any examples of places where this is working?
Uzma: Well with police organizations, I know during entry and during probation, as well as when you’re receiving your training, that’s when you get a lot of education and training on different aspects, such as diversity and mental health. The issue is I think, upon hire and whatnot, there’s not much of a refresher on these elements. For example, I believe that’s something that could be done is ensuring that police officers one month out of the year and maybe it’s broken out throughout the year. So they spend about four weeks out of a year, on mental health refreshments. So learning about the different disorders, the signs and symptoms and how they can appropriately respond to this and intervene, as well as diversity issues. So just becoming more astringent on the training and the amount of training they get.
Another thing that could be done is expecting police officers to attend certain diversity events, and be part of those community events to become more well established with the community. And again, this goes back to the policing model. I know in Edmonton, we have a community based model where the police chief, he’s very adamant of having the police members be part of the different communities.
And so they have many different projects. They work with indigenous women who are trying to leave the sex trade. They work with minority youth who are at risk and they try to help them reach their full potential. They have mental health professionals that go out with the officers during calls. They ZEBRA that work with children who have been sexually assaulted for instance.
Jordan: So what would it take to make that kind of requirement national through the RCMP, through Canadian police forces? Because you know, every once in a while we hear about community based policing in a place like Edmonton and some of the good that comes of it, but bringing all our police forces up to that standard seems like a huge lift, and what has to change?
Uzma: Yeah, there’s a big difference in different organizations and it depends on geographical locations and all the other elements. I think one of the big things that has to change are attitudes that those individuals who make management decisions, they need to adopt attitudes that are more open and have personalities that welcome change and value education amongst police officers.
So, for example, we’ve had students before where the RCMP have encouraged them to drop out by asking them to enter the force. And I think with that, you lose some of those interpersonal skills that you develop at university level education.
Jordan: How long would that kind of change take? Because you know, we’re seeing new videos every week and they’re horrifying and I don’t know if frankly, if we have the time for that to take effect and what could be done now?
Uzma: I agree with you. It is very horrifying to see those videos. And I feel that this is an area that police are behind on. I think it’s important to keep police accountable as they have been through body cameras.
So that’s been tested out in a few areas. I think that’s important to keep them accountable. So we know which police officers are being brutal in some situations and whatnot. So yeah, we need some sort of reforms that need to happen immediately. I think that starts from recruitment, and it can start with current officers and making it mandatory to start taking some education courses and maybe just making their own education more rigorous on issues about mental health and diversity.
Jordan: Do you think the political will exists for this right now in the wake of the protests around George Floyd and issues of police brutality in Canada? And what house do we have to storm if we want change? Who ultimately holds that power?
Uzma: I think it’s important from all ends. So that means police and community. You know, it’s easy for the community to point their finger at police and say, you’re not doing our job well, this is all brutality, but I’ve made the case that police will always have interactions with the vulnerable. Therefore it’s just not using them for law enforcement, it’s also using them to be helpers in our community. So it’s just not the police that needs to make a change. It’s also community members that need to recognize, ‘Hey, we need to support our police officers and ensure instead of just punishing them by trying to cut them off funding,’ that we support change, and encourage change, for it to come through the police organizations.
Jordan: My last question, I’m searching for advice. If I’m someone with a family member in mental health distress right now, I would be, especially if I was a person of colour, they were a person of colour, I would be terrified of calling the police, even if it seemed like they might be violent. What should someone in that situation do, and if they have to call the police, what can they say to make sure that it doesn’t end the way we’ve seen?
Uzma: Communication is key. So one of the first steps we can do is we should all try to start understanding mental health a bit more, and what some signs are.
And what some signs of deterioration are in our mental health and when it hits that line of it being clinical. If it ever becomes clinical where your family doctor can’t help you, maybe it’s taking our family member to a psychiatric facility. What happens often times, is that’s the person, it’s called an egosyntonic disorder. So that disorder, for example, schizophrenia and whatnot, they’re so impacted by the disorder that they don’t understand that something’s wrong with them. A delusion for example, is a fixed false belief. So the person, they, their reality, it’s very real to them. You can’t tell them that no, your neighbour’s not trying to kill you. No, the devil is not coming out to get you. And that devil belief is more of a hallucination actually. So when you tell this to the person who needs anti-psychotics when they’re currently not on any, it’s hard for them to even establish any trust with anybody because for them, that’s their reality.
They truly believe this is going to happen to them. So oftentimes this is exactly what I’m saying. Police involvement might be required to help take that person over into psychiatric care. And so when that happens, it’s so important for both police and community say, to talk to one another. Say, ‘this is a person who has never been violent in the past,
they need assistance, it’s a mental health condition that they are experiencing’. And again, it’s a very hard and fine line for police to go into a situation and decipher, ‘okay, when does this call require me to take more control of a situation?’ And that clear line is when someone’s safety comes into danger.
So when police go into an environment, they need to be cautious of all those pre measures that we’ve talked about. Again, your body sense, the weapons you’re wearing, how you talk to the person and knowing that one person should be talking. And so in the book I’ve co-edited, there we talk about all these different elements and how we can try to deescalate that situation.
And that training, it’s not a one once a time training. Again, it needs to be done diligently over and over as a refresher, as many other health professionals do.
Jordan: Uzma, thank you for sparing some time to walk us through this today.
Uzma: Thank you, Jordan.
Jordan: Uzma Williams of MacEwan university in Edmonton. For more from us, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, you can find all of our episodes there.
You can also find us on Twitter @thebigstoryFPN. And of course, in your podcast players. And if you like what we do, leave us a rating. Leave us a review. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of the big story. Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers. Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor. And Joseph Fish is our research assistant.
Thank you so much for listening. Have a safe weekend. We’ll talk Monday.
Back to top of page