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Jury mulls change to policing of mentally ill

TORONTO - The jury at an inquest analysing the police shootings of three mentally ill Toronto residents headed into deliberations Tuesday with conflicting advice on recommendations it could make to prevent similar deaths in the future.

On one hand jurors were warned not to micromanage police or their training, on the other they were urged to trigger a change in how officers deal with people in crisis.

The five-member panel, which has been examining the deaths of Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klibingaitis and Michael Eligon since October, must now decide which — if any — of 220 proposed recommendations submitted by various parties are worthy of their endorsement.

"You have a slate of suggestions regarding recommendations that you may wish to consider," presiding coroner David Eden told the jury. "Try to make them targeted, focused and both reasonable and practical."

The individuals at the heart of the inquest were all gunned down in separate but similar incidents after advancing on police with knives or scissors.

Lawyers for Toronto police all cautioned the jury against making sweeping recommendations that would drastically alter officer training and policy when it comes to dealing with those in crisis.

"You should be hesitant to micromanage the police as many of the proposed recommendations ask you to do," said William McDowell, a lawyer for Toronto police chief Bill Blair.

"You have to guard against the danger of hindsight...The courageous thing to do here and the right thing to do, I say, is to have a shorter list of tightly worded recommendations."

None of the officers involved in any of the three cases at the inquest failed to follow their training, nor was there any indication their teachings failed them, McDowell argued as he urged the jury not to prescribe "granular" changes in how police carry on their business.

McDowell strongly suggested, however, that the jury recommend police take "reasonable steps" to ensure greater availability of Tasers to deal with those experiencing a mental crisis — a proposal which has been vehemently discouraged by the family of one the of the victims.

The victims' families, an advocacy group and the Toronto Police Services Board have recommended, among many proposals, changes to officer training on the mentally ill, alterations in how police speak to those in crisis and have even made suggestions on equipment, such as body shields, that could possibly be used in dangerous situations.

But the lawyer for an officer involved in one of the cases being examined suggested much of those recommendations focused on the wrong end of the spectrum.

"This really wasn't a policing issue," said Richard Niman, whose client suggested the jury recommend an increase in ad campaigns to promote greater public awareness of mental health crisis hotlines and services.

"As terribly unfortunate as all these situations were, it simply wasn't a matter of the police not doing what they were supposed to do. That's why our recommendation supports things on the front end to head off this kind of incident from occurring in the first place."

Ontario's ministry of health was not a party to the inquest, a fact lamented by lawyers for police.

The province's ministry of community safety and correctional services did, however take part in the proceedings, and reminded the jury it was not obliged to make recommendations.

"You're not experts in policing, you're not experts in police training. Don't feel that you've got the weight of this problem of how to deal with the mentally ill in society on your shoulders," said Rosanne Giulietti, a lawyer for the ministry, which didn't put forward any proposed recommendations.

"You're not going to solve this problem today. But does that mean we've wasted all of this time? No absolutely not, because what you've done is you've shone the light on these issues. You've shown that wherever the solution lies it's not in police training, its not in policing, it's not in that final 10, 20 seconds of a person's life where it's too late for police to effectively do anything."

But the families of the victims have been arguing it is crucial for police to change how they handle those crisis situations.

The inquest has 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.

"Yes we need to have improvement in the mental illness system, we all know that. But we need to have a multiple approach," said Anita Wasowicz, one of Klibingaitis's sisters, who have been representing the family at the inquest.

"We're hoping that common sense prevails and that discernment and discretion is applied, that we do collaborate and that we don't further dig in heels or point fingers because that's not the reason why we are here."

The victims' families have been pushing for a change in officer training to have police take a person's mental state into consideration and make every attempt at de-escalation when dealing with someone carrying a weapon.

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