Pierre Coriolan police mentally ill mental illness

Police are not the answer to mental health crises

The lives of people like Montrealer Pierre Coriolan could be saved by organizing alternative response teams to actually help those in crisis.

The coroner’s report on the death of Pierre Coriolan, released two weeks ago, revived long-running debates about police responses to mental health crises. The coroner, Luc Malouin, was highly critical of the Montreal police intervention that led to Coriolan’s death in 2017. In laying the blame on the SPVM and their lack of training, however, he failed to reflect on our society’s misguided and increasingly deadly recourse to leave the police to address problems of mental illness.

The circumstances of Pierre Coriolan’s death are well known. On June 27, 2017, two of his neighbours in a large apartment building independently called 911 to report that Coriolan was breaking objects in his apartment and was likely experiencing a mental health crisis. When police arrived, they found Coriolan’s apartment door open and the individual sitting immobile on his couch, with an object in each hand. The objects turned out to be a knife and a screwdriver. Standing at the door, the police yelled “Police!” and “Drop your weapons!” Coriolan then stood up and walked to the door, the two objects still in hand.

The police made several failed attempts to subdue Coriolan, shocking him with a Taser and shooting him with plastic bullets. Finally, two officers fired a total of three shots into his body. Paramedics, called to the scene, found Coriolan unconscious and were unable to revive him. He was then taken to the McGill University Health Centre, where he was ultimately pronounced dead. The cause of death was identified as “a hemorrhage resulting from the passage of a bullet from a firearm.” 

Events like these are increasingly common. An investigation by the CBC found that 42% of people killed by police in Canada since 2000 were suffering from mental illness. That’s around 235 people dead, and the situation is only getting worse. The annual number of people killed by police has doubled in the last 20 years. Pierre Coriolan is one of a long and growing list of people killed in Montreal during a mental health crisis. In the most recent confirmed case, the mother of Jean-René Olivier called 911 to request an ambulance to aid her distressed son, only to see the Repentigny police arrive instead. The police encircled her son, who was holding a table knife, and shot him dead on the street.

There are reasons why police killings are increasing. In the 1960s, Canada began a long process of “deinstitutionalizing” people with mental illness. This process was meant to enable people to live better lives in the community, but the promised mental health and social services were never adequately provided. As a result, by the 1980s advocates were already calling attention to an increase in mental health crises and the troubling fact that police were the primary responders to these crises. 

The situation was grave then, and it’s worse now. Police are not mental health professionals, their very presence escalates situations and their equipment (firearms) can turn a manageable situation into a fatal encounter. The risk of death is even greater for Black and Indigenous people. As Toronto activist and artist Syrus Marcus Ware explains, the current reliance on police means that “to be Black and Indigenous and Mad [a person with a mental illness] in a public space is often a death sentence.”

police mental illness CAHOOTS Eugene Oregon
CAHOOTS Crisis Assistance in Eugene, Oregon

Sadly, the coroner’s report on the death of Pierre Coriolan paid no attention to this broader context. The coroner was highly critical of the police intervention, concluding that it was too rushed and badly supervised, and blamed inadequate police training for the death. He failed, however, to consider whether the police are the best response to a situation in which a man in distress is breaking objects in his apartment or whether a mental health professional, dispatched to provide care, might have responded differently to a man sitting immobile on his couch.

The coroner could have noted that cities across North America are developing more appropriate, non-police responses to mental health calls. The most famous example is the CAHOOTS squad in Eugene, Oregon. The squad, staffed by community workers and medics, responds to around 24,000 calls each year, including calls related to mental illness, drug use and homelessness. They provide the care people need, massively decrease risky police interventions and save the city $8.5-million per year.

A series of other cities, including Toronto, are developing models inspired by CAHOOTS. Toronto’s unarmed, community based Crisis Support Service responds to mental health calls in three large areas of the city, as well as calls involving Indigenous people across the city. The new service is part of a broader reinvention of emergency responses. Toronto has begun a process of evaluating the appropriate response to 911 calls in general and developing non-police response teams that will be funded through a reallocation of money currently spent on police. 

In Montreal, police respond to around 50,000 mental health calls each year. Nearly all of these calls could be diverted by 911 dispatchers to a more appropriate response team. A year ago, the Defund the Police Coalition worked with over 100 local groups to develop a proposal for an emergency response team, to be funded by reallocating part of the police budget. Such a model would improve the care provided to people in distress, dramatically reduce police killings and eliminate an activity most police officers would prefer not to undertake. The time to act is now — before the next needless police killing. ■

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