Police intervention highlights broken system for responding to mental health crises

A woman was yelling. Then the cops showed up. Things went downhill from there.
Ethan Cox
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She is yelling. She does that. She lives on the next street over, and she yells sometimes while she’s out walking with her dog. Perhaps a better way to describe it would be that she talks to herself — loudly.

On this March afternoon, that yelling has attracted the attention of a patrol car passing by on this small, leafy street near a downtown metro station.

Looking out my window I see several cops in the alley across the street, surrounding her — a grey-haired older woman with a small white dog. To protect her identity, let’s call her Sarah.

Another neighbour, a retired nurse we’ll call Linda, is also raising her voice by the time I get down to the street. That’s more surprising. She’s the block mom, someone who takes care of people and animals when they need it. One time she spent several days trying to save a baby bird that fell out of its nest, organizing the neighbours to take shifts staying with it. If she’s upset, there’s a good reason.

The cops slam Sarah over the hood of a parked car. She is being held down on her knees against the car by three cops when the others decide to clear us out.

Linda is being held back, and as I’m crossing the street to get closer, I see one of the cops shove her.

“I want to calm down!” Sarah yells. She’s on one side of the alley surrounded by cops, Linda is across from her, also surrounded. “You’re not helping, you’re making it worse! And now you’re saying it’s me. Fuck!”

Linda is still trying to back the cops off, explaining she’s a nurse, she knows Sarah, and she can take her home. Talking about how the police response is just escalating a mental health crisis. Begging to be allowed to just take Sarah home, on the next street over, where she can help her call her doctor.

At this point four cops are in the alley. Then there are six, and by the time they take Sarah down she’s surrounded by no fewer than 10 cops.

About a dozen neighbours have assembled, trying to reason with the cops, begging them not to hurt Sarah. Later I find out that more were filming from balconies. People have flooded out of their apartments to defend a neighbour many have never met. I couldn’t be prouder of my community, but it doesn’t help.

The cops slam Sarah over the hood of a parked car. She is being held down on her knees against the car by three cops when the others decide to clear us out. One of the neighbours picks up Sarah’s dog, and promises to take care of it for her.

Sarah has a lot to say, but as far as I can see she hasn’t made an aggressive move or threat to any of the officers. The neighbours closest to the police are four women of different ages, and they’re trying to reason with the officers. No one is any kind of a threat.

An officer tells me I have to leave. I’m nowhere near the scene of the takedown — none of the neighbours are — but I’m close enough to film, and the camera makes me a target. I explain that I’m a journalist, and by law I have the right to film so long as I’m not physically interfering. I underline that I’m at least a dozen feet away.

The officer shoves me, then shoves me again. That well-trained, splayed fingers on the chest shove they’re instructed to use.

I’m now over 15 feet away. Sarah is being pushed to the ground and held down by five police officers. One of them looks like his knee might be on her neck. I’m trying to hold the camera on her, but the police are deliberately obstructing my view.

Every journalist knows the drill. Keep the camera rolling, try to film around them, stay calm and keep repeating the law and jurisprudence that should ensure your rights but often don’t. Filming this isn’t an academic exercise. These types of interactions with police often end badly. It’s critical they be recorded, and the courts have repeatedly upheld the absolute right of any bystander to observe, photograph and film any police intervention, provided they do not physically interfere with the performance of an officer’s duties.

The cop continues to shove me farther and farther away, asking if I want to be arrested for obstruction of justice. I reiterate that I have a legal right to film.

“You have the legal right to obey our orders,” responds another cop.

My neighbour calls to me to get onto his property. The cops try to block me from getting there, but I slip past and keep filming from his porch. Sarah is roughly shoved into a patrol car, which exits the alley. She’s eventually transferred to an ambulance and transported to the hospital. We don’t know if she will be charged.

As any journalist or bystander with a camera knows, this is all pretty routine. In 2020, Ricochet published an investigative report into police misconduct towards working journalists. It found 19 instances of police misconduct towards journalists over a seven-year period. Many started with an attempt to prevent journalists from filming their actions.

This “escalation” approach is standard operating procedure. No bad apples here, just cops following their training. It’s the system working as intended.

“She was going to end up in the hospital either way,” Linda told me later. “But it didn’t have to be so violent and traumatic. I could have taken her home, called her doctor, we were working together to make a plan to take her somewhere. I was angry because I had spent so long deescalating, and it was working, and then the cops just undid everything.”

Linda tells me that before I came outside she had encountered Sarah in the street, and had spent over ten minutes talking her down, leading her over to sit down by the entrance to the alley.

“She agreed that she was in crisis, and I said ‘okay, let’s make a plan to deal with it.’ She was worried about her cat, so I said, ‘let’s go to your house, we’ll check on your cat and we can figure out who to call on your medical team right now and get you some help.’ She agreed, she was calm and we were able to agree on a plan of care together. We were going to her house when the cops showed up.”

Linda says the cops immediately pushed her away, and separated her from Sarah. As soon as Sarah saw the cops she started to freak out again. Linda says Sarah reacts badly to men.

“She helped me,” Sarah yelled at the cops several times. “Let her help me. She’s going to take me home, I trust her.”

I begged the officers to at least call psychosocial,” Linda tells me, “and get someone down here to do an assessment. They ignored me.”

Just another day in paradise

This is the story of a routine police intervention. That’s what makes it horrifying.

People experiencing a mental health crisis are at the centre of a disproportionate number of police interventions. But police have no training in de-escalation. Instead, they escalate until they inevitably end up taking down and arresting an increasingly agitated person who just needs to calm down.

The officer wearing the “Blue Lives Matter” badge responded that it was a “matter of opinion” whether it was a hate symbol and that he could wear whatever he wants.

Police are trained to confine someone while they speak to them, blocking off escape routes. They invariably call for backup, and within minutes that person is surrounded by up to a dozen officers in bulletproof vests, hands on guns, barking orders.

It will come as no great shock to learn that this approach is the exact opposite of what medical professionals recommend when dealing with a person in crisis. But it may come as a shock to know how often this scenario ends in tragedy. At least 10 people died in interactions with police in February in Canada. Four have died so far this month. Police killings are an epidemic, and police mishandling of mental health issues is at the root of too many of them.

But this “escalation” approach is standard operating procedure. No bad apples here, just cops following their training. It’s the system working as intended.

Hate symbol spotted on officer’s uniform

After Sarah was shoved into the back of a cop car, a neighbour pointed out a “Blue Lives Matter” badge on one of the officer’s uniforms.

An offshoot of the “All Lives Matter” slogan, Blue Lives Matter is a proud rejection of any and all attempts to make police forces less explicitly racist and violent, or introduce any measure of accountability for the actions of police officers. It was founded in 2014 by law enforcement officers in New York in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and has expanded across the U.S. and internationally. The group — composed of active duty and retired police officers — is best known for demanding that hate crimes legislation be expanded to make assaulting a police officer a hate crime. The effort was successful in Louisiana, which passed such a law in 2016.

Officer Ethier, C., wearing a "Blue Lives Matter" badge on his uniform. March 23, 2021
Ethan Cox

Blue Lives Matter has been criticized by anti-racism organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, and the related “White Lives Matter” group has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Los Angeles police officers participating in a Blue Lives Matter rally in 2015 suggested that “ambush killings of police officers in cities elsewhere have left authorities across the nation feeling under siege.” They may feel under siege, but FBI data shows attacks on police officers have been on a sharp decline for years and perpetrators already face harsher sentences for assaults on police officers.

When questioned, the officer wearing the “Blue Lives Matter” badge, whose name plate read “Ethier, C.,” responded that it was a “matter of opinion” whether it was a hate symbol and that he could wear whatever he wants. Ethier laughed at a neighbour who said they planned to file a complaint. He knows complaints never go anywhere.

I’d ask Montreal’s mayor, Valérie Plante, whether she’s okay with an on-duty police officer wearing a hate slogan on his uniform, one that stands in direct opposition to the city’s stated support for the movement for Black lives, but this administration has repeatedly ducked policing issues and clearly has no interest in resolving the policing crisis in this city. So I won’t hold my breath waiting for the mayor to stand up to the police union.

Police budgets go brrr, social services get slashed

I’ve covered the policing crisis for a decade, but it’s still a shock to have it land at my doorstep.

The crisis has many causes. An almost total lack of consequences for even the most serious types of misconduct gives officers a sense of impunity and emboldens their worst impulses. Governments at all levels fear confronting powerful police unions and choose to avoid the issue rather than provoke a confrontation, sacrificing lives to avoid political fallout. Our media ecosystem breathlessly covers each incident of misconduct, but has mostly failed to do the deep investigative work required to map the scope of the crisis. The stats above, about police killings by month, come from a blog maintained by a criminologist. It’s a good blog, but it shouldn’t be one of the only sources of hard data on police killings.

But another cause of the crisis was on display in this routine police intervention.

Police budgets have ballooned in the past two decades — Montreal’s police budget has increased by 54 per cent since 2004 — even as crime rates have declined. Meanwhile, governments have slashed social programs and community supports like social workers, outreach teams and outpatient clinics.

“I told him, ‘no one in this neighbourhood will put any faith in the police after what they saw.’”

The inevitable result is more mental health issues manifesting on city streets, leaving a void that is filled by police officers who are not trained in de-escalation or qualified to provide mental health care. They usually end the same way, with an (often violent) arrest that causes additional trauma and does nothing to address the underlying issue.

Many, if not most, calls responded to by all the patrol officers hired under these expanding budgets are related to mental health. These aren’t investigators tracking down murderers or violent criminals. Criminals tend to leave before the cops show up, but those experiencing a mental health crisis are sitting ducks.

There is no number to call in Montreal to ask for a social worker or medical professional to assist in a crisis. There is only one option: an armed police response that will escalate the situation. There is an urgent response team that only the police can call in. They appear not to have done so, despite being asked, in this case.

Why won’t Montreal reallocate some of that ballooning police budget to hiring the professionals who can actually help, instead of invariably making the situation worse? Perhaps follow the lead of other cities that have redirected part of their police budget to social workers and intervention teams?

You’d have to ask the mayor on that one.

The tragedy here is how ordinary this all was. This is how our city responds to mental health crises. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous and most of all it is wildly counterproductive. But it’s the system working as intended.

Linda, my retired nurse neighbour who worked with patients in crisis and on the street for part of her career, tells me later that she’s known Sarah from around the neighbourhood for years. She’s an “absolutely incredible artist” who adopts abused dogs who come to her angry and afraid, but blossom in her care.

Sarah is my neighbour, and her occasional yelling is mildly annoying. But I don’t want the cops to tackle her: I want healthcare professionals to help her. That’s what she needs, and that’s what will actually address the issue. What happened this week will likely make her situation worse, adding a new trauma to the load she already carries. It didn’t have to happen. But it happens every day, all over our city.

Linda called the police sergeant in charge the next day to complain. She tells me she’s planning to call him back and ask him to attend a community meeting in the alley where this happened so the neighbours can get answers. We’ll see if he agrees. She says she knows it might be a waste of time, but she feels like she has to do something and she doesn’t know what else to do.

“I told him, ‘no one in this neighbourhood will put any faith in the police after what they saw.’ I told him everyone here is really angry.”

“He tried to say I was upset because they didn’t respect me as a professional. That’s not why I’m upset. They should have listened to me no matter who I am. She was asking for me, I was calming her down. If I was her wife, or her sister, would they have listened to me then? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

Linda was standing in the alley, still flustered and angry after Sarah was taken away.

“I used to do this work,” Linda said. “I often worked with this big cop who wore shorts. He looked more like a mailman than a cop. He and I and a social worker, we’d go out together and help people in crisis. We de-escalated. No one ever got arrested. It worked! Does that not exist anymore?”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sarah had moved in down the street in February. In fact, she lives on the next street over.
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