As someone with a mental health disability, the chair of Thunder Bay’s Accessibility Advisory Committee knows how harmful it can be to hear front-line responders and healthcare staff refer to their jobs as “babysitting services” when working with people that may have addictions or other mental health disabilities.
It’s why Kai Crites decided to speak out after watching a series of videos from 2014 that show how Thunder Bay police officers treated two Indigenous men while booking them at the station for public intoxication.
The video surveillance shows an officer saying to one of the men “you’re not a three-year-old child.” Later, another police officer asked “why is everyone a child?” and called his job a “babysitting service.”
Crites said this language is not only “demeaning,” but it also is indicative of a lack of education and training about how to work with and support people that may have addictions or mental health disabilities.
“It’s the idea of being seen as choosing to act that way or that those behaviors are being chosen. And for people that struggle with mental health and addictions-related disabilities, it’s not a choice to experience certain behaviors or outcomes of their disability.”
Crites added, “this is a very toxic and harmful attitude. It makes you feel like not worthy of getting assistance.”
Video footage shown at pre-inquest hearing
The video footage referenced by Crites was shown at pre-inquest hearing in Thunder Bay, and shows how officers treated Dino Kwandibens of Whitesand First Nation as well as Don Mamakwa of Kasabonika First Nation, who later died that night in custody. Both men were in custody for public intoxication at the police station on Aug. 2, 2014.
The hearing was to determine whether the video should be shown at a coroner’s inquest expected to begin this spring that will examine the circumstances around the death of Mamakwa and a second Indigenous man, Roland McKay of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug after he died in 2017, also while in the custody of Thunder Bay police.
Lawyers for the families of Mamakwa and McKay argued the footage should be included in the inquest because it shows how systemic racism in policing affects the treatment of Indigenous people in the city.
But lawyers for Thunder Bay police officers argued the video should be excluded, saying the footage is irrelevant, outside the scope of the upcoming inquest and does not depict actions motivated by racism, but rather by frustration.
Frustration not an excuse: accessibility committee chair
After watching the videos, which include showing police officers drag Kwandibens on the ground by one foot through the police station and into a holding cell, Crites said frustration is no excuse for the officers language or conduct.
“It stuck out to me as possibly being discrimination towards people with disabilities, as well as the effects of racism,” he said.
The chair of the municipal accessibility advisory committee added, “it just worries me that having these attitudes can lead to further things like not following a policy or not taking action to address some of these health-related needs.”
Crites says he has requested to speak with the Thunder Bay Police Services Board to make sure police officers are getting appropriate training and there are procedures in place to make sure officers are providing “compassionate care.”
In a written statement, Thunder Bay Chief of Police Sylvie Hauth said officers “are expected to be respectful and professional in dealing with members of the public. Matters of conduct are taken seriously and are dealt with accordingly through additional training, the discipline process, or both.”
Hauth added, “the administration and members of the TBPS are working diligently to evolve the police service.”
Police, CMHA launches expansion of mobile crisis response program
Crites is also questioning who should be responding to calls related to potentially addictions-related crises.
“I don’t know if it’s a need for more training or more appropriate mental health services, but I know it is an issue not only in Thunder Bay, but it’s an issue in Canada when it comes to police dealing with people with mental health and addictions-related disabilities,” he said.
“We’re failing people when it’s just police going out. It’s just not the right service fit.”
Earlier this month, the Thunder Bay police, the local Canadian Mental Health Association branch and the regional health sciences centre launched the Integrated Mobile Police Assessment Crisis Team.
The year-long pilot will feature a police officer paired with a crisis worker based at the police station to respond to mental health calls for service to police for 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
Once fully staffed, the IMPACT program will have four full-time crisis response workers and two in a part-time capacity. They will be paired with uniformed patrol officers who have been specially trained.
That program will build on the work of the joint mobile crisis response team, which has workers sent from the mental health association’s headquarters to join police officers at the scene of calls, but only operates 12 hours a day, from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.
With files from Martha Troian, and from Matt Vis