Calming touch the key to de-escalating police interventions

Calming touch the key to de-escalating police interventions
Calming touch the key to de-escalating police interventions

Police first tried to use plastic bullets and a Taser in an effort to restrain Pierre Corialan Tuesday night before fatally shooting him, they said. Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

When police respond to calls for individuals in the throes of severe mental distress, there is typically no advance warning, the outcome comes quickly, and in half the cases, it involves the use of force.

Sometimes, as in the case of Pierre Coriolan, a man with a history of mental issues who was wielding two screwdrivers when he was shot by Montreal police Tuesday night, it involves deadly force. Police reported they first tried to use plastic bullets and a Taser in an effort to restrain him.

In the wake of several similar cases in recent years, Quebec authorities say they’re developing strategies and training to decrease the number of fatal confrontations.

When police use a gun to settle a conflict, it’s typically within 10 minutes of their arrival on the scene. In 80 per cent of cases, it’s patrollers out on rounds who respond to the call.

Those findings come from a 2015 study ordered by Quebec’s Public Security ministry into police interventions that require an independent investigation because a person was killed or suffered severe injuries. In 79 per cent of cases, those interventions involved individuals “in an altered state of consciousness,” due to mental health issues, intoxication or both.

In 25 per cent of cases in which an officer fired his weapon, the issues was deemed a case of “suicide by cop,” where the individual was seeking, at that point in time, to be killed.

The figures were compiled in part by Annie Gendron, a researcher with the École nationale de police du Québec, who analyzed 143 independent investigations between 2006 and 2010 in Quebec. They bear witness to the spontaneous and volatile nature of the events — to which police are called, and the extent to which mental health issues are involved.

“These are incidents that are short, but are also very high-risk,” Gendron said in an earlier interview with the Montreal Gazette.

A study by the Washington Post found one quarter of individuals shot to death by police in the United States in the first half of 2015 were in the midst of a mental or emotional crisis. While new recruits spend roughly 60 hours learning to use a gun, they receive only eight hours of training to de-escalate tense situations and eight hours learning how to handle the mentally ill, according to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, the Post reported.

Often the key, experts say, is in trying to verbally de-escalate the situation by speaking in calming tones, but many police are not trained to do so, or to recognize the signs of altered consciousness. Many police are trained to issue commands in a loud tone, that serves to further agitate the disturbed individuals.

“The best way, and sometimes the easiest way, is to try not to escalate the situation and to bring it down to a level to where you can have a basic conversation — some verbal connection on which to build trust,” said Terry Coleman, a former chief of police in Moose Jaw, Sask., who is now a security consultant.

A full course needs to be at least a week long, and should include days of role-playing exercises so officers can gain confidence in the techniques, Coleman said. The best model he has seen is the Crisis Intervention and De-escalation course mandated for all officers in British Columbia in the wake of the Robert Dziekanski tragedy in 2007, when RCMP officers fatally Tasered a Polish immigrant at the airport. The program focuses on officers’ presence and communication above all else, Coleman said.

“Everybody should receive this training and preparation,” Coleman said. “The so-called expert is often not available when you need them the most.”

Michael Arruda, who has spent the last 15 years developing a mental-health intervention strategy for the Montreal police force, said major changes are coming to bring that into play.

Quebec police recruits receive three hours of training at the police academy in crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques. Starting in September 2018, prospective recruits will have to take a 45-hour course at the CEGEP level on mental health — what it is, what happens under crisis situations, how to recognize it and how to handle it. At the same time, police forces in Quebec are being asked to have their officers follow an eight-hour online course on mental health issues, followed by eight hours of practical teaching involving role-playing scenarios.

Montreal police use three types of intervention: the medical model, where health professionals are called on to intervene in non-violent cases; the mixed model in which health workers accompany officers; and the use of one of 160 Montreal officers who have received extensive training in crisis intervention to respond to calls. Forces across Quebec choose their own models, Arruda said.

Right now, a provincial committee composed of Quebec police forces is studying the effectiveness of the different mental health strategies in order to develop uniform training for police across the province, Arruda said.

“I think the population would gain to know that there are things that are being done and we are trying our best to get there,” he said.

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