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Jury's police training proposal supported

A North Shore advocate for the mentally ill is welcoming a coroner's jury recommendation that police receive more regular training in responding to people with mental illness.

A North Shore advocate for the mentally ill is welcoming a coroner's jury recommendation that police receive more regular training in responding to people with mental illness.

"We consider the police to be key first responders," said Hershel Hardin, president of the North Shore Schizophrenia Society. But Hardin said knowing that someone is mentally ill is a key piece of information for police responding to a call.

"That person will not respond to instructions in the same way that a normal person would," he said. "They may be quite paranoid. It may be part of their illness. Provision should be made for that."

Hardin was responding to eight recommendations made by a coroner's jury following an inquest this week into the death of Matthew John Wilcox.

Wilcox, 39, who suffered from mental illness, was shot by a North Vancouver police officer on a Deep Cove street on Jan. 9, 2010. He died the next day in Lions Gate Hospital.

The five-person jury recommended regular training for police in crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques in dealing with the mentally ill.

Police who testified at the inquest said prior to the shooting they had received only minimal training in dealing with mental illness. They said that changed after the incident.

The jury - which is made up of regular citizens - also recommended that teams including both a police officer and mental health professional be available for emergency calls involving people with mental illness.

"That's something we have been pushing for here on the North Shore," said Hardin, adding the service exists in some other jurisdictions. "We're a little bit surprised it hasn't happened yet."

Anna Marie D'Angelo, spokeswoman for Vancouver Coastal Health, said the health authority is examining the recommendations and is "very open" to exploring ways to help police on the North Shore.

Hardin said his organization also favours police carrying Tasers - as recommended by the jury.

In Wilcox's case, the officer who responded to the call was not certified to carry a Taser and did not have one with him. On the witness stand, the officer told the inquest he would not have considered the Taser an appropriate choice for the situation.

But Hardin said in many situations, "It makes a lot more sense to us than somebody drawing a gun."

Hardin did not agree, however, with the jury's recommendation that officers be required to call out, "Stop or I will shoot" before pulling the trigger in armed apprehensions.

"The person might want the police to shoot them," he said. "You don't want that to happen."

Among its other recommendations, directed to both the RCMP and Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, the jury wrote that all efforts should be made to accommodate family visits as soon as possible when a person arrested by police is brought to hospital and that family be informed when police release that person from custody.

Wilcox died alone in Lions Gate Hospital after family members were prevented from seeing him.

"They wouldn't let us see him," said Wilcox's father Michael Wilcox Thursday, who blamed the police for the situation. "It was awful."

North Vancouver RCMP have said they had lifted the ban on family visits by the time Wilcox died. But according to D'Angelo, "We do not have any record of being made aware by the police of this patient's change in custody status."

Sgt. Rob Vermeulen, senior media relations officer for the RCMP's E Division, said the force is currently reviewing the recommendations.

Supt. Chris Kennedy, commanding officer of the North Vancouver RCMP detachment, did not return calls by press time.

jseyd@nsnews.com

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