Content warning: This article describes mental illness, death, and police brutality.
On Saturday June 20, 2020, Ejaz Choudry, a 62-year-old father of four, was killed by a Peel Police officer while the police carried out what they call a “wellness check.” Choudry, who had schizophrenia and did not take his medication, appeared confused; his daughter called a non-emergency helpline for medical assistance. Paramedics and police soon arrived at Choudry’s Mississauga residence.
After three hours of tense interactions, and despite the protests of Choudry’s family, the Peel Police forcibly entered Choudry’s apartment. They ordered him to drop a 20-centimetre long knife that he was holding — speaking English, a language that his family said afterward that he did not properly understand. Three hours after Choudry’s daughter made the call, Peel Police Officers fired both a taser and plastic bullets at Choudry, before finally shooting Choudry in the chest with two live bullets.
A year later, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit Director Joseph Martino determined that the police officer who shot Choudry would not be charged; in his decision, Martino wrote that he believed that “[the officer’s] resort to his firearm was objectively reasonable, necessary, and proportional to the threat posed by Mr. Choudry, notwithstanding the tragic loss of life it caused.”
Choudry’s death did not occur in isolation. A 2017 systematic review of the Toronto’s Police Service examined 32 victims who experienced mental health crises that were killed by the police between 1996 and 2016. Out of the 32, nine cases were catalogued as “accidental death,” while 21 were considered homicide cases; the most frequent cause of death was a gunshot to extremities.
According to the World Health Organization, around 450 million people currently struggle with mental illness. According to The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, mental health crises affect three per cent of the world’s population. During mental health crises, people may be unable to distinguish between what is and is not real. They may lose understanding of words’ meaning, and could develop false beliefs and extreme changes in emotion. First aid responders recommend not to argue, confront, or challenge someone in a mental health crisis; therefore, instead of escalating from a stun gun to bullets, police should enter stressful situations with the goal of de-escalation and calming down the person in crisis.
The police state: a dark history
Like many institutions, police forces come from less than noble beginnings. Thirteenth century England invented the concept of a “constable” as another watchman to protect the peace of the kingdom and throughout the eighteenth century, different jurisdictions in the Americas created armed forces to capture enslaved people who tried to run away from their enslavers.
In Canada, the first police force was formed in Toronto in 1834, when the then-mayor appointed a full-time constable and granted them the authority to hire and appoint special constables. A similar pattern was followed by other cities as the need became apparent. In 1867, after Canada became a nation, then-Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald founded the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (RNMP), which was created by Federal statute in 1873 to police the Northwest Territories. In 1920, the Federal Government extended the jurisdiction of the RNMP to the whole of Canada — this group later became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) — and by 1950, all provinces but Ontario and Québec contracted with the RCMP to form provincial police.
However, Canadian history is also rooted in white supremacy and colonial practices; as such, the RCMP implemented state-recommended discriminatory policies toward visible minorities, such as rewarding Black people who turned back after escaping American Jim Crow laws and recommending that Japanese-Canadians be forcibly placed in internment camps to be monitored during World War II.
This loose retelling of global history demonstrates that, to keep the peace in their patrolled areas, the police also have a history of punishing actions and people that they interpreted as disorder. But, in language, “disorder” means more than the opposite of order. It is also a medical condition, one defined by the National Cancer Institute as a “disturbance of normal functioning of the mind or body” and by The Medical Dictionary as a “derangement or abnormality of function: a morbid physical or mental state.”
Notice the dichotomy between the idea of normativity and disorder, and how the same word is used within criminal and medical contexts when dealing with those with someone suffering from poor mental health. If order and normativity are the upheld status quo, people with mental health issues “disrupt” that status quo.
Section four of the 1985 Bill C-46 lays out some situations in which a police officer is legally protected in using “force that is intended or is likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm to a person to be arrested.” The cop must be making a lawful arrest, the culprit must try to escape, and the officer must “[believe] on reasonable grounds that the force is necessary for the purpose of protecting the peace officer… or any other person from imminent or future death or grievous bodily harm.” The law also requires that “the flight cannot be prevented by reasonable means in a less violent manner.”
When reading these definitions, it’s no wonder that police may often use excessive force during interactions with people with mental illnesses.
Treated like a criminal
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “[research] consistently shows us that a person with mental illness is more likely to be arrested for a minor criminal offence than a non-ill person.” A 2018 CBC News investigation found that 70 per cent of the more than 460 Canadians who had fatal encounters with police officers since 2000 had mental illness or substance abuse issues. A 2005 study from the Canadian Association of Mental Health further found that police encounters afflicted roughly a third of people with serious mental illnesses who were declined care at emergency departments.
But what emotional trauma do victims experience when they are treated like criminals by police forces?
According to a 2021 Johns Hopkins Medicine study, exposure to police — even in instances in which the officers are assisting — can be associated with poor mental health, substance use, risky sexual behaviours and impaired safety. Additionally, a 2020 study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences found that a high rate of police stops over one’s lifetime increases the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2019 study from the same journal surveyed 918 American youths who reported being stopped by police and found that they were “more likely to report heightened emotional distress and posttraumatic stress symptoms.” It recommended counselling care after police encounters.
Abdullah Darwich is a Mississauga teen who has autism and is non-verbal. On November 4, 2022, Darwich left his home wearing only shorts; Peel police received a call about “a suspicious person in a state of undress, attempting to enter a vehicle and a house.” After arriving on scene, Peel police officers subdued Darwich with a taser, leaving him with taser injuries, cuts, and bruises throughout his body, including on his face. Following the incident, Darwich’s father told CBC News that his son is now “terrified of everything.”
Unfortunately, Darwich’s fear is not uncommon. The Varsity interviewed Jane,* a 16-year-old high school student from Whitby. In 2022, Durham Regional Police Services (DRPS) visited Jane’s residence to conduct a wellness check when she was experiencing a mental health crisis. Jane told The Varsity that during these interactions, she felt that the police “didn’t talk to [her] with respect.” During one interaction after a manic episode, Jane says the DRPS took her to a mental health emergency ward. “What scared me was basically the fact that I had no say in what was going to happen to me,” Jane said.
Jane’s older sister, Candance,* is a third-year U of T student; in an interview with The Varsity, she explained that she also suffers from mental health issues. As such, she described feeling like a helpless bystander while her younger sister was interacting with the DRPS.
“I think it all comes down to their ignorance toward mental health issues and how abrasive and cold they treated her when she was in her most fragile state,” Candance said. “They would talk to our parents as if she were a criminal: ‘You need to behave. You need to be nicer to your parents.’ ”
In an email to The Varsity, the DRPS’ Director of Corporate Communications, Christopher Bovie, wrote that “out of respect for health privacy and this young person” the police department “won’t comment on anything specific to [their] wellness check.” However, Bovie mentioned that, in general terms, “there are times that officers will respond to a mental health call or wellness check.”
Bovie added that, in these cases, “hopefully…individuals can be connected to local mental health supports and resources.” However, if the individual poses a risk of self-harm or harm to others, “police officers have the authority to take [them] into custody under [Ontario’s] Mental Health Act and bring them to a Schedule 1 hospital for appropriate treatment and care.”
Defund the police?
Amid national outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota on May 25, 2020, and other police shootings of Black people, the slogan “defund the police” grew into a movement that sparked protests across North America. As of 2022, the City of Toronto spends almost 25 per cent of its taxpayer dollars, or $1.1 billion, funding its Police Services, the Police Board, and the Police Parking Authority; in part, supporters of the movement argued that by defunding the police, resources like these could be reallocated to create emergency services that better support those suffering from mental health crises.
In March 2021, the City announced the creation of the Toronto Community Crisis Service (TCCS), which would offer a non-police response to mental health crises. The TCCS provides those in crisis with multidisciplinary teams of trained crisis workers who will respond to non-emergency requests for well-being checks and calls from people experiencing a mental health crisis.
During the announcement of the service, then-Toronto mayor John Tory explained that “residents and community organizations have made it clear that they want a non-police response in appropriate situations in those in crisis.” According to the City of Toronto’s website, the TCCS “focuses on health and wellbeing, trauma informed response to non-emergency crisis calls.”
However, in our interview, Candance pointed out that the DRPS already has a Mobile Crisis Intervention Team, a unit that consists of two DRPS officers working with a Durham Mental Health Services (DMHS) community mental health registered nurse and a DMHS case manager. This team assesses and supports “emotionally disturbed persons,” with the aim of de-escalating mental health crisis response and providing support to community services.
U of T has also made structural changes to how Campus Safety Special Constable Services treat mental health crisis cases. When Natalia Espinosa, a UTM student, informed a mental health advisor of thoughts of self harm in October 2019, the advisor contacted campus police, and instead of giving the student resources, they handcuffed her because of “risk.”
After this incident, Cheryl Regehr, U of T vice-president and provost, established the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, which assesses and recommends equity and mental health training, expanded 24-hour access to multilingual counselling, is coordinated with health insurance plans, and plans to establish a student advisory board on mental health and wellness. While solutions like these are far from perfect, they are a step in the right direction.
Though police may have a dark history and a concerning present, that does not mean that the institution is incapable of changing for a better future — one in which they enact justice for people with disabilities, and ensure that Canadians can get the proper treatment for their mental health instead of feeling stigmatized. One of the most important values that disability justice teaches us is that when we help the most vulnerable in our communities, we help ourselves; by offering those in mental health crises extra care, police can better protect and serve us all.
*Names have been changed due to privacy concerns.
With files from Maeve Ellis.