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Consider mental state, families tell inquest

TORONTO - The jury at an inquest examining the police shooting deaths of three mentally ill people was urged Monday to recommend that officers consider the mental state of a person in crisis and make every attempt to de-escalate the situation.

The suggestion was at the crux of multiple proposals from the families of all three victims, an advocacy group for the mentally ill and the Toronto Police Services Board, as some 220 possible recommendations were outlined during the final chapter of the inquest which has been running since October.

Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klibingaitis and Michael Eligon were all gunned down after approaching police with knives or scissors in separate but similar situations.

The inquest heard that when an officer is faced with an individual advancing with a sharp object, their response is based on the person's behaviour and not their mental state.

But that thinking had to change, the families of the victims argued.

"You have heard that our police officers are trained to react to the threat and not to the person. I found such policy shocking," John Weingust, a lawyer representing Jardine-Douglas's family, told the jury.

"The majority of police officers are decent human beings. It's their training and policy that needs changing."

In Jardine-Douglas's case, his sister called 911 for help in August 2010 after her mentally ill brother boarded a public transit bus. Police who boarded the bus ended up firing at Jardine-Douglas after he pulled a knife from his backpack and advanced on an officer.

"They knew of his illness and they approached him with the same manner and conduct as if they were dealing with a hardened criminal, Weingust said. "In dealing with mentally disturbed people and knowing they are mentally unstable, they should respect the person first."

Jardine-Douglas's family has put forward recommendations which include asking the jury to suggest officers be trained to talk to mentally ill people in a "calm and civilized manner," and use the "least lethal option possible" if force is required.

Eligon's family echoed that call among its 32 proposed recommendations to the jury.

"Officers must, where feasible, try de-escalation attempts, whether there's an edged weapon or not," said family lawyer Peter Rosenthal, who recommended police refrain from using their firearms as long as possible.

Eligon was 29 when he died on a quiet residential street in February 2012, after fleeing from a Toronto hospital dressed in a hospital gown and armed with two pairs of scissors.

"Michael was shuffling along, he wasn't trying to hurt anybody. What would have happened if they had waited?"

Rosenthal also cautioned the jury against adopting a recommendation from the Toronto police chief that steps be taken to ensure greater availability of Tasers to deal with situations like the ones being examined at the inquest.

"Don't make Michael Eligon's legacy more Taser use in the city," said Rosenthal. "Make his legacy more de-escalation that applies in the case of edged weapons."

A lawyer representing two of the police officers involved in the fatal shootings suggested, however, that the jury not try to entirely revamp training that already exists.

Gary Clewley pointed to Eligon's flight from hospital as an example of the holes in a system which led to a mentally ill person coming before police in the first place.

"The real problem is the fact that there was no room in the inn for the guy, isn't that the real problem? If he had been treated, he wouldn't have been on the street," he told the jury.

"It may be that the real debate is somewhere out there. The one that hasn't been had. And that is the one about the relationship, the true relationship between consumer's rights, the need for treatment and community safety."

The province's police watchdog cleared authorities of wrongdoing in all three cases and all the officers involved in the fatal shootings told the inquest they felt they had no choice but to pull the trigger.

The family of Klibingaitis, which has been representing itself throughout the inquest, suggested working together on all fronts was key.

In Klibingaitis's case, the 52-year-old called 911 herself in October 7 of 2011 — saying she was going to commit a crime — before she confronted officers with a knife in her hand.

"It is and remains a big challenge trying to figure out how this unforeseen event did unfold," said Lili Steer, one of Klibingaitis's three surviving sisters.

"We need to figure it out...the antidote to this big problem, to this illness, is compassion, and understanding."

The family suggested, among many recommendations, bringing together experts in psychiatry and use of force to research better ways in which police could respond to those in crisis carrying edged weapons.

"The purpose would be to understand if the current model contributes to escalation and if it actually creates a bigger crisis in some way," said Anita Wasowicz, one of Klibingaitis's other sisters.

"The family does not blame and we're not in favour of any blame but we are looking for collaboration."

The coroner presiding over the inquest will deliver his charge to the jury after closing arguments wrap on Tuesday.

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