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

When Philippe-Arthur Jérome found his roommate bleeding and in the throes of a panic attack, he did what most of us have been taught to do during an emergency: he called 911.

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

“It was just the most absurd response to anyone 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 November 1 morning illustrate the lack of acute opportunities for people dealing with psychiatric distress. It is the latest in a series of examples in which Montreal police appear to have escalated a mental health crisis rather than rendering it harmless.

“He called the ambulance and now he’s been arrested. Nothing about it makes sense.”

His roommate, Darcy Seekascootch, is scared of the police. Seekascootch is Nehiyaw from the Plains Cree area and their family has a traumatic history of law enforcement. So when Seekascootch found out that Jérome was calling 911, things escalated.

“I knew they would send the police, and once you call 911, you can not roll it back,” Seekascootch said. “What turned out to be a hugely horrific suicide episode for me turned into something that could have been worse. I’m scared of the police.

“You hear stories from your family and loved ones, and from an early age you internalize the notion that the police are not there to help you and they can make things worse. So when they arrived, I freaked out. I’m straight. started shouting ‘no officers’. “

At the entrance to the apartment, Jérome said he was trying to reason with the two officers.

“I do not remember what the exact wording was, but they told me they should come in and decide if we needed an ambulance,” Jérome said. “We could hear Darcy screaming ‘no officers’, so I said,’ Listen, we really do not want police 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.

“When I opened the door, they burst in and laid their hands on me,” Jérome said. “They’re pushing me across the apartment, I’m just not trying to fall over, but when four officers quarrel with you, you go down.

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

A stalemate occurred.

“They have us all in one corner of the house, and it’s basically like, ‘You have to come with us,'” Seekascootch said. “I refused. It became this hour where the officers just stand in my house and stare at me while my friend has handcuffs on the couch.

“He called the ambulance and now he’s been arrested. Nothing about it makes sense.”

The incident on November 1 and others raise the question: are police officers the best solution for a person in mental distress?

An ambulance took Seekascootch to the hospital that morning, and they are likely to start an intensive day program at a psychiatric hospital this winter. But Jérome is still facing criminal charges. His indictment is on January 11th.

Last year, native lawyers filed a complaint with the Quebec Court of Human Rights after 17 officers and a dog unit were dispatched to deal with an Inuit woman in distress. She grabbed a broken bottle and threatened to use it on herself, but an employee managed to calm her down enough that she put it away.

Someone called 911 and asked for an ambulance, but instead over a dozen officers showed up with a barking dog. So the woman picked up the bottle again and an officer pulled out his Taser and pointed at her.

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

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

Montreal police have a dedicated unit for mental health crises with about 80 officers and civilian employees. There is also a team that pairs officers with psychiatric professionals and intervention staff from clinics at the center 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 answer about 1,900 calls a year, according to the Montreal Police Department’s website.

But these teams are only a fraction of the city’s 4,000 police officers. And while thousands of them have received basic training in conflict reduction, the incident on November 1 and others raise the question: are police officers the best solution for a person in mental distress?

So far, it seems, police will continue to be the first option in such circumstances. And as Valérie Plante is re-elected mayor this month on a pledge to add 250 more police officers to the city’s streets, it looks like it will be the primary option in the foreseeable future.

“I’ve been off work for a while and things were not good until the police came in, but I’m hopeful for next year,” said Seekascootch, who worked as a chef before going on health leave. “It’s just a bad mix, police and mental health.”

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

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