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Psychotic breakdowns difficult for police

Dear Editor: I want to clarify my remarks on the Matt Wilcox inquest recommendations, cited by reporter Jane Seyd in her April 8 story, Jury's Police Training Proposal Supported.

Dear Editor:

I want to clarify my remarks on the Matt Wilcox inquest recommendations, cited by reporter Jane Seyd in her April 8 story, Jury's Police Training Proposal Supported.

My reference to a person possibly not responding to a police instruction in the way one normally would was not to those with a mental illness generally, where there wouldn't be police intervention anyway, but to someone in a psychotic state, usually because they're untreated or have stopped taking medication. I regret any misunderstanding my earlier wording may have caused.

My concern with the instruction "Stop or I'll shoot" also requires elaboration. The comment cited in the news was about what's commonly known as "suicide by police," where, given that instruction, the person may keep going, and be shot. These cases are relatively rare, although one doesn't want them to happen, either.

The general problem with "Stop or I'll shoot," however, is that it escalates the situation. The command should only be used where de-escalation, stepping back if necessary, and other intermediate measures have proven inadequate and the officer's life is at risk. Better the use of a Taser, too, if possible in the situation, rather than a gun.

Cases where the psychotic person, usually paranoid, is holding a knife or scissors are the most worrisome. Even when the person steps forward, as different from rushing forward, caution and adjustment are advisable, it seems to me. The paranoid person will be holding a knife, for example, as self-defence against people or evil forces out to get him, not in the first instance to attack a police officer. An instruction like "Stop or I'll shoot," or "Drop the knife or I'll shoot," moreover, may not be properly processed right off the bat, because of thought disorder, sensory overload, or severe anxiety.

Both in the Lower Mainland and elsewhere in Canada, several ill people holding a knife or scissors (including, in one case, a table knife) have been killed over the years in encounters with police where a more patient and quieter approach, including stepping back to create distance if necessary, might have avoided the tragedy.

These are difficult issues. Just for the record: We regard police officers as key first responders and as friends of the mentally ill, helping to get very ill people, who lack insight, to hospital for assessment and then treatment. We advise family members to call the police if their assistance is needed, providing as much information as possible ahead of time.

Herschel Hardin, president, North Shore Schizophrenia Society

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