Cops, guns and the mentally ill

Far too many misunderstood sick people have been shot by Montreal police over the years. But a new report out of Toronto could prevent this from ever happening again.

montreal police shooting

It seems strange to turn to our arch-rival Toronto for guidance, but officials there have shown a willingness to tackle a problem that has plagued Montreal for decades: the death of mentally disturbed individuals at the hands of the police.

Last week, former Canadian Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci issued 84 recommendations to Toronto police chief Bill Blair on how his officers should deal with “people in crisis.” The report was actually commissioned by Blair, not foisted on him from above, and he has vowed to act quickly to put its proposals into action.

Among the key recommendations in the Iacobucci report are:

• Requiring police to wear body cameras when dealing with people who are emotionally disturbed or suffering mental health problems;

• Implementing a pilot project for wider user of electroshock (taser) weapons;

• Expanding mobile crisis-intervention services that combine mental health professionals with specially trained police officers;

• Better training for officers on how to de-escalate confrontations and protect both the public and the person in crisis.

Blair ordered the report shortly after a Toronto police officer shot 18-year-old Sammy Yatim nine times on an empty city streetcar just over a year ago. The mentally disturbed teen was initially shot three times, then six more times five seconds later by Const. James Forcillo, who is facing a charge of second-degree murder.


In Montreal, three recent cases of police intervention with disturbed individuals have left four men dead, including Patrick Limoges, a 40-year-old nurse cycling to work who was killed by ricochet as police fatally shot Mario Hamel, a mentally ill homeless man who had been shredding garbage bags on St. Denis St. in June 2011.

Seven months later, another mentally ill homeless man, Farshad Mohammadi, was shot twice and killed at the Bonaventure metro station after attacking officers with an X-acto knife following a shouting match.

Then in February, only a few hundred yards north-east of where Limoges and Hamel died, police shot and killed Alain Magloire, a former molecular biology researcher suffering from mental problems, who was waving a hammer after being surrounded by seven police officers near the Berri bus terminal.

Coroner’s reports were commissioned in all three cases and although we have yet to hear from the coroner in the Magloire case, we have heard loud and clear from the coroner who investigated the first two incidents, Jean Brochu. In his latest report, released July 21, Brochu repeated many of the same pleas he had made following his earlier investigation, including better training for police, more access to electroshock weapons and officers trained to use them, and specialized medical teams that can be mobilized quickly to the site of a potential conflict.

That doesn’t sound all that different from some of the basic recommendations in the Toronto report, but unlike Brochu, Iacobucci won’t have to repeat himself a few months later.


It’s hard to imagine that the coroner’s report into Magloire’s death will say anything substantially different, because the circumstances of all three  incidents remain disturbingly familiar. Police with inadequate training in how to deal with a mentally disturbed individual end up escalating a crisis while waiting for resources (tasers and mental health professionals) that arrive only they have lost control of the situation and the subject has been shot to death.

Montreal police have more that doubled the number of officers trained to use electroshock weapons since Magloire’s death and have purchased 12 new tasers, but as critics point out, although they may be less lethal than firearms, that doesn’t mean they’re safe.

“In some cases, it can be the solution,” Pierre Gaudreau of the Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal told The Gazette last week. “But it’s not ‘the’ solution. Maybe Alain Magloire, Mario Hamel and Farshad Mohammadi would still be alive. But we know the taser is dangerous, too. What we need is more social services, more services for people who are on the street.”

What we DON’T need, however, are more coroner’s inquests whose recommendations go largely ignored. Nor do we need some new touring Quebec dog-and-pony commissions of inquiry that  costs millions of dollars and makes hundreds of recommendations that also get ignored.

Instead, Quebec premier Philippe Couillard and Montreal mayor Denis Coderre should do the fiscally and socially responsible thing: steal the recommendations of the Iacobucci report and put them into action.

Among the more unusual recommendations from Iacobucci, and one that hasn’t been made in Quebec, is equipping police with vest-mounted cameras. But their use shouldn’t be limited, as he suggested, to officers dealing with the mentally disturbed. (I’m not sure how you could even administer that policy when such incidents are unpredictable).

Police camera use in other jurisdictions has been shown to deter crime and reduce incidents of violence against or by police. As I argued here not long ago, pilot projects have shown it’s a great way to improve behaviour on both sides and provide more reliable evidence in subsequent trials or inquiries.

Quebec is a distinct society, but it’s not so distinct that we can’t steal good ideas from our neighbours. Let’s get it done before we have to convoke another coroner’s inquest.  ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.