It’s All In Your Head

(The following was written and originally published prior to the tragic August 9th shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and is not intended to reference that incident in any way)

Nuts. Psycho. Two sandwiches short of a picnic. What’s your attitude when you hear that someone is suffering from mental illness? The three examples above were among many given in a U.S. police training exercise about dealing with people who may be emotionally disturbed. The officers were asked to come up with pejorative terms for mentally ill people. Although initially uncomfortable, it didn’t take long for them to rhyme off the above examples.

Later in the exercise, the officers were asked for similar adjectives to describe people with cancer. About the worst they could come up with were “sick,” “brave” and “courageous.” Looking at the two lists side-by-side on a blackboard, the officers realized how distorted their viewpoints were about mental illness.

This is just one example of the problems police and other first responders have in trying to deal with those who may have mental disorders. They’re part of an absorbing article called, ‘Stand Down’ by John Lorinc, which appears in the July/August 2014 edition of The Walrus.

One focus of the wide-ranging article concerns the unique approach developed by the Memphis Police Department in dealing with incidents involving emotionally disturbed suspects. In response to a tragic shooting nearly 30 years ago, the MPD created the Memphis Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a specially trained group of officers who are dispatched to emergency scenes and given over-reaching powers when a potential incident occurs involving a suspected mentally ill individual.

Lorinc describes the CIT model as “a progressive approach to de-escalate high-tension confrontations, improve police attitudes toward those suffering from mental illness, and divert them from the criminal justice system.”

Since its creation, similar programs have been developed in 2,700 regions in the U.S., including Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as in Vancouver and Hamilton. Almost across the board, there have been vast improvements made in the way police departments deal with such incidents, many of which can be prevented from escalating just by having trained people on-scene who know how to deal with mentally ill people.

With so many departments adopting such programs, one notable exception stands out from the list: Toronto. This is particularly disturbing given the number of high profile shootings in recent years involving Toronto Police Services and mentally ill individuals.

The most notorious happened just over a year ago when teenager Sammy Yatim was shot to death on a Toronto streetcar by Constable James Forcillo, who fired three times at Yatim, paused, then took six more shots at close range. Forcillo has since been charged with second-degree murder in the incident.

According to Lorinc’s article, between seven and 40 percent of people who police come in contact with may have some form of emotional disturbance. And there are often additional factors such as homelessness, addiction or people suffering some kind of emotional crisis.

Lorinc indicates that Toronto police deal with about 19,000 calls per year involving someone who’s emotionally disturbed. That’s less than one percent of all police contacts with residents in Toronto, far from the estimated seven to 40 percent quoted above. Lorinc surmises that, possibly due to inadequate training, Toronto police simply are unable to recognize signs of mental illness when they see them.

Based on numerous examples given in the article, it would certainly seem so. Rather than talking rationally and calmly to emotionally disturbed suspects, many of the noted incidents involve officers screaming and shouting commands at the people, often the worst possible approach.

At the end of July, Toronto police Chief Bill Blair had his contract turned down for renewal by the city’s Police Services Board. According to reports by the CBC, Board chair Alok Mukherjee said it was time for a change and there was a need for renewal.

The CBC said Mukherjee indicated what some of the changes might be when that “renewal” happens: “They will include the way that the police interact with the community; the way officers interact with emotionally disturbed persons and the mentally ill; and the need to transform the police service in a way that ensures it is effective and sustainable in the long term.”

In a not-too-subtle way, Toronto’s Police Services Board has confirmed what Lorinc and many others already believe – that the city’s police force is ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with incidents involving those with emotional disturbances.

Lorinc talks at length about a coroner’s jury in Toronto that held an inquest earlier this year into three police shootings. Its recommendations echo many of those from the Memphis CIT training manual. These include a better knowledge of mental health problems, more training in verbal de-escalation techniques, and an abandonment in certain instances of what’s referred to as the “twenty-one-foot-rule,” where police are often expected to subdue suspects forcibly who are closer than that arbitrary distance and are considered a potential threat.

The rules need to change. According to Lorinc, during the coroner’s inquest, one police officer said about the shooting he was involved in, “It’s textbook, and I wouldn’t change a thing.” But, if that “textbook” is outdated and incomplete, why is it still being used?

Lorinc indicates that in that same shooting, one police officer actually called on his comrades to use some sense of calm. The author wonders why and concludes: “He likely had enough life experience to think beyond the twenty-one-foot rule, and to recognize what was in front of him: a man in crisis, rather than a police killer brandishing a potentially fatal weapon.”

Ironically, a local resident, out for a jog the morning of the incident, saw the confrontation and instantly recognized the situation for what it was: “It’s a cold winter day. The guy is standing there in a hospital gown, with bare legs. My first thought: this guy is in a mental health crisis.”

If an average citizen with no training determined what was happening instantly, why couldn’t a group of ostensibly “trained” police officers? And why did it take all of 72 seconds for them to end the emotionally disturbed patient’s life with their guns?

The bottom line is that we all need to be better educated about mental illness. That education starts with our frontline police officers.

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Guilty Pleasures

We all have them. Chocolate. Soap operas. Romance novels. Ice cream. Trashy reality television shows. Tabloid newspapers. They’re called “guilty pleasures.” Mostly innocuous stuff but, perhaps, not the types of things you’ll readily mention to strangers or casual acquaintances.

One of my personal favourites is detective novels. I used to read a lot of the “classics” like Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man series with Nick & Nora Charles) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye).

Over the years, I began enjoying many of the later authors in the genre, which include John D. MacDonald, Robert P. Parker and more recent practitioners such as Robert Crais and Louise Penny, among many others.

But, in my opinion, there’s one particular novelist and one specific “detective” who stand above the rest. The author’s name is Lawrence Block, a Buffalo, New York born writer who’s lived much of his 76 years in New York City and sets many of his novels there.

Block has written several different series, a humourous one about a gentleman burglar named Bernie Rhodenbarr and a more recent one about a hit man called simply “Keller.”

All of the series are entertaining in one way or another, but if Block did nothing else but create one particular character, that would have been fine with me. His name is Matthew Scudder. To say he’s “flawed” would only begin to poke at Scudder’s many issues.

When the series started back in 1976 – nearly 40 years ago – he was an alcoholic, ex-NYPD detective who’d left his wife and two boys. He admits to taking bribes, sleeping with prostitutes, covering up crimes and much more during his time on the force. He makes the decision to quit the NYPD after accidentally killing a young girl when he was off-duty and had been drinking.

The first few novels in the series are good but, other than Scudder’s many less-than-savoury habits, aren’t particularly memorable. Ironically, the whole enterprise really takes off when the character, who now gets by as an unlicensed “detective” who helps out friends for money and lives in a seedy Hell’s Kitchen hotel, wises up and quits boozing, joining Alcoholics Anonymous.

The story goes that, at this point, Block had decided to abandon the series because he didn’t think there was any future in the story of a dry alcoholic. It goes to show that sometimes we’re not the best judges of our own talents. Far from being over, Scudder’s story had really just begun to be told.

Much of the next few novels deals with the reformed drunk’s agonizing attempts to remain sober. You’d think that learning about someone’s efforts to find his next AA meeting or trying to overcome the pull of alcohol everywhere he goes would be pretty dull stuff. On the contrary.   Instead, Block creates one of the most multi-layered, morally-conflicted humans you’re likely to encounter in fiction.

On top of that, he’s some kind of detective. Dogged. Determined. Brilliantly analytical. Able to take the tiniest most insubstantial thread and keep pulling on it with his mind until a twisted, unsolvable case is put to bed. As one of his former coworkers on the police force described him, he’s like a dog with a bone.

But, having created a great character is only part of Lawrence Block’s attraction. He also happens to be a spectacular wordsmith. And he does it with seeming effortlessness, a true sign, in my mind, of a very talented writer.

Much like Chandler or Parker in their prime, his writing is spare, his imagery always on the money. As the New York Times Book Review put it: “Bulls-eye dialogue and laser-image description,” calling his characters “almost real enough to touch.”

I rarely re-read books. Without exaggeration, I can count on one hand the number I’ve read more than once. But, that hand does not include Block. I have read the entire Scudder series, many of them more than once.

And a few years back, I decided to make it my mission to purchase each of the books in order, one or two a year, and take a run at the entire 17-volume series, just to experience the pure joy of the character that Block created so many years ago.

What a pleasure that’s been. I’m only seven books into my journey of rediscovery and I’m loving every minute. I could probably knock off each one in an evening but, instead, I’ll usually take at least a week to pore over every page, savouring the dialogue, reintroducing myself to Scudder and all his acquaintances, and learning to love this amazing, twisted, tormented character all over again.

I’ve never written to an author before, but I’ve often considered dropping Block a note, just to thank him for creating these mini-masterpieces. Maybe he’d appreciate it, as he’s hardly a household name and has never become anything close to being wealthy for his efforts. Or maybe he’s a snooty snob who would be too good to care what others think of him.

I’ll never find out because I never want to spoil the enchantment and the mystery behind both Block and his wondrous creation. Like discovering the secret behind a magic trick or the recipe for a perfect dish, sometimes, it’s just better not knowing.

Approaching the age of 80, it’s hard to know how many years Block still has with us or how many more Scudder novels he has in him. The last one came out in 2011 and he’s only written three in the past 13 years, so the end of the line could be near. That would be heartbreaking news for a devoted fan like me, but all good things end someday.

In the meantime, I intend to savour every moment of this guilty pleasure, taking snack-size pieces of Block’s delectable goodies whenever I hunger for the unmistakable taste of Scudder.             Whatever your guilty pleasure, I hope you get to enjoy it for many years to come, as well. Life’s too serious not to take a few moments every once in awhile just to enjoy it. Grab a piece and take a giant bite whenever you can. Delicious!

 

 

 

 

Back To The Future

Ronald Reagan. It’s been years since I thought about the 40th President of the United States. However, in one of those odd coincidences that happen so frequently in life, I was reminded of Reagan recently after watching an Oscar-nominated movie and reading a popular 2013 novel.

The movie is Dallas Buyers Club, which tells the horrifying story about the outbreak of the AIDS virus in early 1981, coincidentally, the first year of Reagan’s administration. The film details the struggle to identify and treat the first victims of AIDS. It’s a sad, sad story of fear and prejudice and ignorance, some of which was propagated by Reagan himself.

Ostensibly, the President refused to utter the word “AIDS” in any of his speeches until 1985, during his second term in office, despite the fact that it had become an out-of-control epidemic by that time. In 1981, there were just 159 reported cases of the disease. By the time Reagan left office in 1989, nearly 90,000 Americans had already died of AIDS.

As the movie relates, during those first few years, the U.S. government dithered and delayed, eventually setting up blind clinical trials that dying AIDS sufferers would have to wait for a year to start. By then, if they were still living, they would have only a 50/50 chance of being prescribed the untested drug AZT. If they weren’t in that fortunate group who received the drug, they’d get a worthless placebo, instead.

Dallas Buyers Club relates the story of two very different victims, one an emaciated redneck played by Matthew McConaughey (who knew this guy could actually act?) and the other a flamboyant transgender male/female, played superbly by Jared Leto. The unlikely pair of victims join forces to purchase illegal, experimental drugs from various parts of the world, creating their own “cocktails” to help prolong their lives.

The other 80’s touchstone is the novel The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. The book centres around a group of young people who come of age during the Reagan administration. One part of their lives deals with the sudden appearance of the AIDS virus and its effects on the members of the group, one of whom becomes involved with a victim of the disease.

Twenty-five years after he left office, Ronald Reagan routinely scores near the top in surveys about “Most Admired Presidents” and many still consider him to have had a greater impact on American life than almost any U.S. leader in the 20th century. His supporters point to the restoration of American morale following the Vietnam War, the great wealth accumulated by many, the collapse of the Soviet Union and numerous other touchstones that occurred during his administration.

On the other hand, Reagan’s tenure also saw the national debt soar, relations with Iran and other Muslim countries ruined, a massive build-up of defence spending, the attempted destruction of unions and, of course, the aforementioned devastating effects of Reagan’s inattention to the AIDS virus.

Added to that, in my opinion, there was a transformation of America into a less caring, more fearful, more isolated nation, one that’s only been made worse by subsequent Republican Presidents, including Reagan’s Vice President and successor, George Herbert Walker Bush and Bush’s son, George W.

For those who never supported Reagan, he’s considered a B-list actor (one who co-starred with a chimp in the “classic” Bedtime for Bonzo), an eccentric geezer, and a dunderheaded buffoon who championed absurd projects such as the cartoon-like Star Wars defence program, which would have seen billions or trillions of dollars spent trying to shoot enemy missiles out of the air. It also led to the President’s popular nickname, Ronnie Raygun.

Rather than looking at him like a friendly, doddering old uncle, they see him as a mean-spirited tool of the rich and powerful who gave generously to the wealthy through his failed Reaganomics program, a simplistic economic system that anticipated a trickle down of wealth to the poor and middle class, something that never happened.

Instead, Reagan’s policies sowed the seeds for an America where the rich got richer, the gap between the haves and have-nots widened, mistrust of foreign countries grew and fear became the norm in American life. It also paved the way for creepy characters like the Bushes and Dick Cheney to build on their own wealth and power at the expense of average citizens for much of the last 30 years.

In the movie and book’s descriptions of living with the AIDS virus, Ronald Reagan’s true colours shine brightly. During his tenure, the primary goal in life was to accumulate great wealth, at the same time ostracizing those who were different, promoting fear, buckling under to the religious right and ignoring anyone who didn’t fit into the President’s narrow definition of what it meant to be an “American.”

In Reagan’s United States, the AIDS virus was considered to be God’s punishment for those whose lives didn’t conform to what was considered “normal.” It was a tragic, despicable view that ended up killing tens of thousands, many of whose lives might have been spared if Reagan had kept his eye on the physical health of his country, rather than just its wallets.

A friend reminded me last week of a quote from an unknown source that says, “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.” Too true.

Put on as many pairs of rose-coloured glasses as you want. No matter how hard you squint, you can’t hide the fact that this popular president did so little to help average citizens, as well as the weak, the poor, the sick or the challenged. Instead, he promoted the stockpiling of wealth for those who were already well off – at the expense of the people who truly needed his help and compassion. In my mind, that’s nothing to be admired.

 

 

Afghanistan Addition

In writing a tribute seven days ago to those who have fought for this country and were honoured on Remembrance Day earlier this week, I referred only in passing to the forces who have served in conflicts and peacekeeping missions following the Korean War. In fact, I think most Canadians often consider only the two World Wars and the Korean conflict in their remembrances. But, the truth is, tens of thousands of troops have been involved in skirmishes around the globe during the past half-century and often go unrecognized.

One of the most notable instances has been in Afghanistan, where nearly 40,000 Canadian Forces personnel have served since first arriving in 2001. This September, withdrawal of the remaining 900 special personnel began and, by March of next year, only a few will remain. Support for the troops was strong in the middle of last decade, but gradually waned until Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated Canadians had lost their appetite for the war and declared in May 2011, “Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world.”

Some people beg to differ. Or, at the very least, they would say that Afghanistan is still a definite threat to itself and its people, if not the world. In a fascinating article in the October 2013 edition of The Walrus magazine, CBC journalist Mellissa Fung recounts the story of her first return to Afghanistan since she was kidnapped five years ago, held prisoner in a hole for 28 days, and tortured repeatedly.

Fung disputes two popular notions most Canadians hold: that there are few tangible results from our soldiers’ efforts in Afghanistan and that the country is ready to govern itself, hold off the Taliban insurgents and continue the reforms that have begun.

The journalist recounts some truly inspiring statistics in making her case that Canada’s efforts have made a huge difference in the country. One example is in education. “In 2001, 700,000 students were enrolled in school, almost none of them girls. Today more than 10 million children go to school, and 40 percent in the primary grades are girls. Since 2002, more than 4,500 new school buildings have been constructed, and the number of teachers has increased eightfold, to nearly 200,000. In addition, more than a quarter of a million women have attended literacy classes,” writes Fung.

She also has high praise for the Canadian forces who have served in the country – along with deep sadness for the sacrifices they’ve made: “The mission transformed the military into a modern fighting force, but also left us with a long roll call of dead, wounded and battle scarred. One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers were killed, more than 2,000 were injured and another 3,000 are estimated to have developed some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Despite those grim numbers, Fung talks about the positives for the Canadian forces, saying, “The more than decade-long engagement in Afghanistan, the longest in Canada’s history, has given our military a much-needed morale boost, rehabilitating its image after the Somalia scandal in the 1990s. The forces entered Afghanistan with a sense of both purpose and trepidation, a volunteer army from a small country, no longer peacekeepers but warriors, with new equipment, new recruits and a renewed sense of pride.”

But, as far as the job being done, Fung has her doubts. She reports that nearly three million Afghans live as refugees in neighbouring countries with almost half a million displaced internally. Countrymen fear the worst as foreign powers abandon the country. One young mother told Fung, “Leaving a war at this stage means you will give al Qaeda the chance to grow again. When the world talks about humanitarian assistance, or the humanitarian part of the fight, this is not done yet.”

The woman does not believe her government is capable of running the country with its poor record so far of corruption and lack of transparency. She is not alone. Fung feels the current balancing act, which includes a “peace” where upwards of 100 Afghan soldiers are killed every week, is extremely fragile – and she doesn’t believe they can go it alone. “Yes, Afghans must learn to stand on their own, take care of their country, and protect their rights. They understand that, and they want it more than anything; but to protect the gains that have been made, sustained investment from the rest of the world is needed, and will be for a long time. There is fear here, but also optimism,” she says.

As the remaining Canadian Forces personnel prepare to exit the country, some are, undoubtedly, ready to come home, having done their job to the best of their ability. However, for other personnel – along with the many civilians who remain in Afghanistan – there’s a sense the job is incomplete, that the projects and missions they began as far back as 2001 still need to be finished.

In either case, those who served in Afghanistan deserve our deepest respect and gratitude for what they have accomplished in a country nearly 11,000 km away. They have performed bravely and professionally and with distinction. And they deserve our remembrance wholeheartedly.

 

 

The Difference Between Them And Us

I like Americans. I really do. In my opinion, you’d be hard pressed to find any people in the world more friendly, open and welcoming. If you’ve ever travelled in the U.S. or, even better, met any Americans while you’re on holidays, you’ll know what I mean. Sure, they can be kind of loud and gregarious and opinionated and overbearing sometimes but, heck, so can we Canadians.

Because of our proximity, many people outside of our two countries can’t even tell us apart. Our cultures are similar, our economies are alike, we shop at many of the same stores and, despite some regional dialects, our languages are mostly interchangeable.

That’s not to say we don’t have our differences. We’re big on universal health care and they seem to think it’s some big socialist plot. They spend about $682 billion a year on their military (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) and we only fork out about $20 billion. Their teams actually win at hockey while ours are mostly hapless (do you know it’s been 20 years since the last Canadian team won a Stanley Cup?).

But, I have to believe the biggest single difference between our two countries comes down to one thing: guns. They love ‘em. Us? Not so much. It’s estimated that about 47% of American households own a gun and that there are nearly 90 guns for every 100 Americans or about 300 million in total. In Canada, even the highest estimates say that only about 20% of Canadian households own a gun.

And, of course, the difference in the number of gun-related crimes between our two countries is simply staggering. According to a website called guncontrol.ca, there were 8,775 U.S. homicides committed with firearms in the U.S. during 2010, as opposed to just 170 in Canada. That’s almost three people per 100,000 in the States versus less than .5 people in our country.

Last December 14th, 20 first grade students and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, one of the most heinous massacres in U.S. history. In the days following, there seemed to be a change in many Americans’ opinion about the need for some kind of gun control measures, even of the most basic kind.

However, within a couple of weeks, the Executive Vice President of the powerful National Rifle Association was already lobbying against such initiatives saying, instead, the solution was to put more guns on the streets and have armed guards posted in every American school.

Jump ahead to last week when a series of watered-down gun control proposals were shot down by the U.S. Senate. Far from stripping the average American of the right to bear arms, which is guaranteed in the Second Amendment, the proposals seemed, at least to this Canadian, to be pretty level-headed: a requirement for background checks on weapons purchased at gun shows and through the Internet, a ban on assault weapons and a ban on high-capacity gun magazines of more than ten rounds. However, all the proposals were defeated soundly, despite being introduced as bipartisan efforts between Democrats and Republicans.

U.S. President Barack Obama called it a “pretty shameful day for Washington.” Especially shameful when you consider that a number of polls and surveys said the proposals were supported by between 80-90% of Americans. Apparently, the “will of the people” doesn’t mean much these days. What really means something is the efforts of the NRA and its 4.5 million members, representing fewer than 1.5% of Americans.

Owning a gun for hunting or protecting your family or because you’re a collector all seem like perfectly acceptable ideas. No person or group can seriously believe that having a ban on the types of weapons suggested by the U.S. Senate would prevent any legitimate gun owner from enjoying his hobby or feeling safer in his home. But, somehow the NRA and other gun advocates believe otherwise. Certainly, that’s their prerogative and they’re free to voice their opinion. But, when that opinion contradicts more than 80% of Americans’ views on the matter, it makes a person wonder exactly what kind of “democracy” they’re running down there.

And, on top of that, it also leads me to believe that, perhaps, Americans really are a whole lot different from Canadians than I originally thought they were. In the case of all the U.S. victims of gun violence – past, present and future – that’s just sad.