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.

How Slow Can You Go?

When you’re out for a typical drive, how fast do you travel? Under the speed limit? At the speed limit? Or over the speed limit? I’d venture to guess that most Ontarians would choose the latter, especially for those who drive on the provincial and 400 series highways.

So, if most of us are already driving over the speed limit, why doesn’t the government recognize that fact and increase the maximums? Crazy talk, you say? Not at all.

According to an editorial in the July 21st edition of Maclean’s magazine, that’s exactly what’s happening in British Columbia. The story explains that the province’s Transportation and Infrastructure Minister recently announced a wide range of changes to B.C.’s highways, including raising the speed limit on dozens of them.

Maximums are being bumped up by as much as 20 km/h on certain highways, with some limits jumping to 120 km/h, the highest in Canada. The article notes that the increases have been opposed by several groups, including the RCMP, the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and environmental agencies. Their reasons include everything from safety issues to environmental concerns.

However, according to the article, “In truth, there should be no appreciable impact on safety or the environment. The changes will simply allow people to get where they’re going in a lawful and timely manner.”

Maclean’s says there is plenty of evidence showing that most people’s speed is a reflection of driving conditions and road characteristics, not posted limits. As well, contrary to what you might think, “Raising limits doesn’t produce faster average speeds; it merely makes lawful what is already common behaviour.”

The article goes on to say that it isn’t the speed itself that causes accidents – it’s the difference between the fastest and slowest drivers. “A large gap between drivers’ speeds is most often found in situations with artificially low speed limits and this can lead to dangerous passing attempts, unpredictable behaviour and driver frustration: all of which most certainly cause collisions.”

As proof, the story notes that the last time B.C. raised its speed limits in 1997 serious collisions dropped by 18 percent over the next five years, despite traffic volumes increasing by about one-third during the same period.

In deciding to raise the limits again this year, the B.C. government used a background report that states, “Speed limits should be set so that they include the behaviour of the majority of drivers and provide an appropriate maximum speed.”

The guideline used to determine the new limits is the typical speed travelled by 85% of those using the highway. By that measure, it’s pretty obvious that speed limits in Ontario are completely out of whack.

In fact, transport trucks in this province are mechanically limited to a maximum speed of 110 km/h – ten clicks over the actual speed limit on the 400 series highways. And, unless I’m totally oblivious to everyone around me on the 401 or 402, most of the passenger vehicles are already driving faster than those transports.        So, what is the province accomplishing by keeping the limits artificially low?

The Maclean’s article says the changes in B.C. will allow law enforcers to put their efforts into combatting the truly reckless drivers amongst us and, thereby, making the roads safer for everyone: “The moves should free police to focus their efforts on stopping the 15 percent of drivers who exceed accepted norms and behave in ways that are obviously dangerous to themselves and others: driving drunk, distracted driving, racing, etc.”

British Columbia and Maclean’s magazine are certainly not the only two proponents of an increased speed limit. A website called http://www.stop100.ca advocates increasing maximums to between 120 and 130 km/h on Ontario’s 400 series highways. More than 28,000 people have signed a petition on the website supporting the increase.

The Stop100 site includes editorials from several sources to back up their fight, including The Globe and Mail and The National Post, along with lots of information on various studies that support an increase in speed limits.

The website also notes that 120-130 km/h speed limits exist in more than 60 countries and states worldwide – and that many countries with higher speed limits have lower or similar fatality rates to Ontario.

What are your thoughts? Do you routinely exceed the speed limit, especially on 400 series highways? If so, do you believe you’re guilty of breaking the law and should be punished for doing so – along with the large percentage of other drivers who also typically exceed the maximum? Or do you think it’s time Ontario re-examines a policy that is constantly ignored by most of its drivers? Equally important, how do we drive home that point with our provincial government?

Slip Slidin’ Away

If you’re searching for some sure signs that the official start of winter is near, you don’t have to look far. Cars in the ditch. Fender benders. Rolled over transport trucks on the 402. And repeated warnings from the OPP to “Slow Down!” Every year it’s like déjà vu all over again. Is there something about humans that immediately erases our memories at the end of every previous winter, causing us to have to re-learn the most basic rules of winter driving?

If you’re looking for another sure sign that snowy weather is here for another year, it’s the sudden appearance of all those lists of safe driving tips. You know what I’m talking about: “15 Ways To Beat Old Man Winter,” “Top Secrets Of Being An Awesomely Amazing Snow Driver,” and “Everything You Need To Know To Survive Winter Roads.”

They’re all the things you routinely ignore because you’ve heard them all before. Trust me – that’s what I do. I’ve been driving in winter for more years than I care to remember, so who’s going to tell me how to improve my driving skills? Not you – Mr. Listy McListmaker!

Having said that, a couple of days ago I saw a message from the Ontario government about a two-minute YouTube video they posted a few weeks ago called, “Top 10 Tips to Prep for Winter Driving”. Yawn. So, preparing to be bored out of my skull and scoff at all the things I already know, I watched.

And, you know, a funny thing happened. Even though most of the information was pretty basic and something I’ve likely learned at some point in my life, I also realized that, over the years, I’ve managed to abandon almost all the things they mention in the video. And I bet that many of you have, as well. (If you’d like to watch it yourself, type the above name for the video into the YouTube search bar and VOILA!).

For instance, they tell you to clear all the snow from your windows, mirrors, lights and roof. Like me, I imagine you routinely forget to do at least one of those (probably your lights) and, by doing so, you add risk to your own driving and everyone else on the road. Or, how about starting your car and waiting for your windows to clear before you start driving?

Here’s one I bet nobody does: “Wear comfortable clothing that doesn’t restrict your movement when you’re behind the wheel.” I usually get to that about half an hour into my trip and, typically, I don’t even pull over to take my coat off – I’ll just do it while I’m driving. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

The video also includes two places to get provincial highway conditions before you leave for your trip: Ontario.ca/trip on the web or “511” on your phone. As well, it also gives you a non-emergency number for the OPP Provincial Communications Centre (1-888-310-1122) that you can call anytime to get assistance when you’re travelling.

The video also urges you to pack a winter survival kit (yep, I don’t have one of those either!) that includes items such as a flashlight, small shovel, blankets, extra clothing, winter boots, non-perishable energy foods, a candle (for heat) and matches.

If you become stranded, don’t panic. Check to make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of drifting snow before running your engine and open your window slightly for fresh air. And stay in your vehicle for safety and warmth.

Gas up before you go. Not only will you have plenty of fuel to get you to your destination if the driving is slow and allow you to run the vehicle longer should you be stranded, the extra weight will also give you more stability on bad roads and prevent moisture problems in your fuel system.

Finally, keep your cool. As the video cautions, “Shortcuts in winter weather ultimately won’t get you there any faster.” Perhaps that’s the best advice of all – and something that so many of us fail to heed.

We rush to leave for our destination without checking ahead or properly clearing our vehicle. We don’t allow ourselves the extra time we need to get where we’re going – so we drive faster than we should. We don’t consider the best way to get where we’re going – just the fastest. And we don’t plan ahead – which is the entire message the video is trying to deliver.

So, for those of you who’ve made it this far in your reading, congratulations! Even if you know about and practice everything I’ve written above, it never hurts to be reminded one more time. I’m off to prepare my winter survival kit right now and, if you haven’t got one of your own, I hope you’ll do the same. Stay safe and, like the video says, keep your cool.

 

This Is Why We Have Laws

If there’s one common complaint Canadians have, it’s that we’re over-governed. Too many laws. Too many regulations. Too much red tape and bureaucracy. As an example, the PC Party of Ontario noted in one of their recent “white papers” that there are 386,000 regulations in the province covering agri-business alone. How is that even possible – and how many thousands of people are in charge of making sure all those regulations are being followed?

Tim Hudak’s party says they’re committed to getting rid of one-third of all red tape across the board, which sounds like an admirable goal. But where do you start? And where does it all end? If you start cutting out all the superfluous laws and regulations, how do you know when you’ve dumped all the unnecessary ones and started chopping the ones that actually serve a useful purpose? The same goes for our whole country.

Just a little over a month ago, a runaway train carrying crude oil crashed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing at least 47 people and destroying much of the town. The train’s owners, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, have now declared bankruptcy in the U.S. and Canada, unable to pay even a fraction of the estimated $200 million cleanup, let alone any legal damages.

There has been plenty of finger-pointing since that accident and who know where all the blame will fall eventually? In any case, it’s pretty obvious that many of the regulations that were already in place were never followed prior to the accident. In fact, part of the reason for the catastrophe may have been that some of the rules formerly enforced by Transport Canada had been transferred to the railway companies themselves to self-administer. And, following the accident, Transport Canada introduced several new emergency directives to prevent futures disasters like the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic one, so now there are even more regulations to follow.

This past week, in an accident that seems like something Hollywood might pitch for its next horror movie, two young boys died in Campbellton, New Brunswick after being asphyxiated by a 4.3 metre (14-foot), 45 kilogram (100 lb.) African Rock Python, a snake that has been banned in the province since 2009.

How could such a calamity happen when there were laws in place preventing it? A criminal investigation into the event is still ongoing and there’s no indication what charges might be laid, but there are legitimate reasons why such exotic, dangerous creatures are restricted.

Recently, in our own area, a 21-year old man from London died tragically south of Watford after he was electrocuted while setting up a large tent for a wedding. The OPP and Ontario Ministry of Labour are investigating the incident and no results have been released yet but, again, it appears on the surface that regulations may not have been properly followed.

Three horrific accidents in three different parts of the country, but they all appear to have one common connection: they might all have been preventable, if only the existing laws and regulations had been adhered to. We laugh at some of the ludicrous by-laws on the books, probably for good reason. Almost all of us flaunt speed limits on a regular basis. None of us are saints and there’s no way we can follow every single piece of legislation when there are millions of them – and more been drafted every day.

However, when we make the decision to engage in potentially life-threatening situations, it’s understood that if we choose to ignore the law, we do so knowing there may be dire consequences that follow. We live in a society that runs on rules. This isn’t the Wild West or a chapter out of Lord of the Flies.

During a recent public information meeting, an OPP constable talked about the need to strike a balance in our society so that everyone can live their lives as they choose, without causing harm to others. He said we do that through laws and regulations. It’s a balance that’s not always easy to achieve, but it’s something we must all work towards.

If we reap the benefits of having a government or a police force or a regulatory body whose goal is to protect us, we must, in turn, choose to follow the regulations they set out, even if they’re inconvenient or costly or restrictive. To do otherwise is to choose a path that puts others in harm’s way and threatens all our freedoms. It’s not Big Brother watching us. It’s all of us watching out for each other.

 

This Is Not Bullying

Another week, another horrific story of “bullying.” That word is in quotation marks for a reason. The recent death of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons goes so far beyond any traditional definition of bullying that it’s almost impossible to make any comparisons. And it leads a person to believe the world is going down some horrific path from which we’ll never return.

Sometime about 18 months ago, it’s believed this bright and beautiful young woman from Nova Scotia was savagely raped by four violent thugs. As brutal as that is, Rehtaeh’s nightmare had just begun. The offenders posted pictures of the sexual assault online and emailed them to others, boasting about their twisted triumph. From there, the story went in a new, disgraceful direction with schoolmates and others harassing, belittling and ‘bullying’ this young victim until she believed there was no way out except to take her own life.

And now, too late, there are plenty of people pointing fingers, without any real answers about what needs to be done. Prime Minister Stephen Harper put the death in perspective by taking the whole matter out of the realm of mere bullying. In a statement that was widely reported by several media, including the CBC, he said, “I think we’ve got to stop using just the term bullying to describe some of these things. Bullying to me has a kind of connotation … of kids misbehaving. What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity. It is youth criminal activity, it is violent criminal activity, it is sexual criminal activity and it is often internet criminal activity.”

Harper is absolutely correct. Even in its broadest definition, it’s incomprehensible that Rehtaeh’s story falls under the category of what most people consider bullying. If you have any doubts about this, you should take a few minutes to read the heartbreaking blog post made by Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning, the only statement he’s made about her death.

“The worst nightmare of my life has just begun. I loved my beautiful baby with all my heart. She meant everything to me. I felt her heart beating in my soul from the moment she was born until the moment she died,” he writes. “The life I had with my daughter was a rare thing. It was wonderful, it consumed me. I was defined by it. It made my life rich and beautiful. She was amazing.”

This is a man who believes the entire community let his daughter down. And he’s right. In addressing Nova Scotia’s Minister of Justice, Canning says, “Rehtaeh Parsons thought the worst outcome for her case would be no charges against the men who raped her but we all know better. The worst thing that could happen would be charges. That they would be found guilty, and that Rehtaeh would sit on a court bench and listen in utter disbelief as they were given parole, or a suspended sentence, or community service. All for completely destroying her life while they laughed.”

Canning is in disbelief that his daughter is gone while the people who helped contribute to her death still walk the streets. “They took photos of it. They posted it on their Facebook walls. They emailed it to God knows who. They shared it with the world as if it was a funny animation. How is it possible for someone to leave a digital trail like that yet the RCMP don’t have evidence of a crime? What were they looking for if photos and bragging weren’t enough? Why was this treated like a minor incident of bullying rather than a rape?”

Someone needs to answer Canning’s questions and those of others who have lost children to the escalating violence that all gets wrapped up conveniently in the blanket of bullying. This is not one person’s crime. This is everyone’s responsibility.

As Canning puts it, “My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police. She was my daughter, but she was your daughter too.”

No one can help Rehtaeh Parsons. Or any of the other young people who are gone because they believed there was no way to survive a life where ‘bullying’ was tolerated or ignored or dismissed. But, perhaps we can all help the next Rehtaeh before it’s too late. Maybe a good start would be to stop calling it bullying and come up with a word that’s more appropriate. Harper calls it “criminal activity.” Some might even call it “murder.” Call it whatever you want. It just has to end. As Glen Canning says in his statement: “For the love of God do something.”