Police and mental health are a ‘bad mix’ in Montreal

A panic attack and a call for an ambulance lead to assault and charges
Photo: G Morel
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When Philippe-Arthur Jérome found his roommate bleeding and in the throes of a panic attack, he did what most of us are taught to do during an emergency: he called 911.

Little did he know that his plea for help would end with him getting tackled by four police officers, choked, handcuffed and charged with a crime. All because his roommate asked Jérome not to let police in to deal with what was a health emergency.

“It was just the most absurd response to someone asking for help,” said Jérôme, who lives in Montreal’s Milton-Parc district. “We needed an ambulance or a mental health professional, not someone with a badge and a gun.”

He says the events of that Nov. 1 morning illustrate the dearth of emergency options for people dealing with psychiatric distress. It is the latest in a series of examples where Montreal police appear to have escalated a mental health crisis rather than defusing it.

“He called the ambulance and now he’s under arrest. Nothing about that makes sense.”

His roommate, Darcy Seekascootch, is afraid of the police. Seekascootch is Nehiyaw from Plains Cree territory and their family has a traumatic history with law enforcement. So when Seekascootch found out Jérome called 911, things escalated.

“I knew they would send the cops and, once you’ve already dialed 911, you can’t roll that back,” Seekascootch said. “What turned out to be a massively awful suicidal episode for me snowballed into something that could have been worse. I am terrified of the police.

“You hear stories from your family and your loved ones and, from an early age, you internalize the notion that police are not there to help you and they might make things worse. So when they arrived, I freaked out. I just started yelling, ‘No cops.’”

At the entrance of the apartment, Jérome said he tried to reason with the two officers.

“I don’t remember what the exact wording was but they told me they would have to come in and decide if we needed an ambulance,” Jérome said. “We could hear Darcy screaming ‘no cops’ so I said, ‘Listen, we really don’t want police in here. It’s not going to help. We can just take [them] to the hospital in our car.’ So I closed the door.”

A few minutes later, two more officers showed up.

“Once I opened the door they barged in and put their hands on me,” Jérome said. “They’re pushing me across the apartment, I’m just trying not to fall over but when four officers are wrangling you, you’re gonna go down.

“At one point, one of them grabs me in a chokehold and I just let them do what they have to because I don’t want things to get even worse.”

A stalemate ensued.

“They have us all cornered in the house and it’s basically like, ‘You have to come with us,’” Seekascootch said. “I refused. It turned into this hour where the cops are just standing in my house, staring at me while my friend is handcuffed on the couch.

“He called the ambulance and now he’s under arrest. Nothing about that makes sense.”

The Nov. 1 incident and others raise the question: are police officers the best solution for someone in mental distress?

An ambulance took Seekascootch to the hospital that morning and they will likely be starting an intensive day program at a psychiatric hospital this winter. But Jérome is still facing criminal charges. His arraignment is on Jan. 11.

Last year, Indigenous advocates filed a complaint with Quebec’s human rights tribunal after 17 officers and a canine unit were deployed to handle an Inuit woman in distress. She wielded a broken bottle and threatened to use it on herself but an intervention worker managed to calm her down enough that she put it down.

Someone called 911 and asked for an ambulance but, instead, over a dozen cops showed up with a barking dog. So the woman picked the bottle back up and an officer drew his Taser, pointing it at her.

Earlier this month, Montreal police restrained and pepper sprayed a man suffering from a mental health crisis. They wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him and took the man into custody.

That incident also began with a friend calling 911 for help.

The Montreal police have a dedicated unit for mental health crises of roughly 80 cops and civilian employees. There’s also a team that pairs officers with mental health professionals and intervention workers from downtown clinics to help connect homeless people with the resources they need. Another unit pairs five officers with four social workers specifically assigned to de-escalate crises. They respond to about 1,900 calls a year, according to the Montreal police’s website.

But these teams are just a fraction of the city’s 4,000 police officers. And while thousands of them have received basic training in conflict de-escalation, the Nov. 1 incident and others raise the question: are police officers the best solution for someone in mental distress?

For now, it appears the police will continue being the first option in such circumstances. And with Valérie Plante being re-elected mayor this month on a promise to add 250 more police to the city’s streets, it seems it will be the primary option for the foreseeable future.

“I’m off work for a while and things weren’t good before the cops barged in but I’m hopeful for next year,” said Seekascootch, who worked as a cook before going on a health leave. “It’s just a bad mix, cops and mental health.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet.
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