Police-first Gone Wrong

·5 min read

Warning: This article tells a story that involves self-harm and attempted suicide.The names of people in this story have been substituted with pseudonyms due to the sensitive nature of the content.

When paramedics responded to a mental health crisis late last October, they found a 52-year-old Charlottetown man lying in the hallway of his apartment building, unresponsive, in a pool of his own blood.

His hands were cuffed behind his back, feet shackled as blood continued to pool onto the floor around his head and into a spit mask which had been placed over his face and head.

Tom had attempted to take his own life.

Paramedics estimate he lost two litres of blood from two cuts on his neck which had completely lacerated his skin but luckily, hadn’t penetrated his trachea.

It’s estimated Tom was unresponsive for up to five minutes prior to the arrival of paramedics, who requested Charlottetown City Police officers remove the handcuffs and spit mask to allow better access for IVs and to his wounds.

Police refused, citing they were worried Tom would become aggressive and combative if he regained consciousness. Paramedics were unable to insert an IV in part due to placement of the handcuffs.

Tom survived and learned details of the incident through a paramedic report obtained through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

“I was taken aback about the report, about paramedics not being able to get in to treat me while I was in that state because of what the police said,” Tom said in an interview with The Graphic.

Once transported to the hospital, Tom’s neck wounds were closed using 45 medical staples.

He required an intensive care unit bed and a ventilator to breathe for six days following the incident.

“I’m hanging in there,” he said recently. He is thankful to be alive and out of hospital. But he and Michelle, his friend and legal medical advocate, wonder what might have happened if someone other than the police had led the response that day.

They expect the outcome would be different if Tom was met by a highly-trained social worker dedicated to mental health crisis response, with a deep understanding of disorders like post traumatic stress disorder and with access to Tom’s medical history.

Tom fights major depressive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder daily. He has dealt with mental health issues since he was a child.

Usually he manages his mental health well with the help of regular therapy, counselling and the right balance of medication. He also finds regular outdoor activity and keeping up enjoyable activities like indulging in some of his favourite music help him along.

He had not been in crisis for years - until October.

Tom’s treatment options were reduced starting in 2020 due to the Island’s response to COVID-19. Tom fell ill.

The day Tom attempted to take his life, Michelle picked up strong signs he needed immediate professional support so she called police and requested a wellness check.

“If there are any other response options out there I would prefer it,” Tom said, explaining a police-first response to mental health crisis isn’t the best approach.

The province has had access to federal funding to develop a mobile mental health crisis team led by mental health care professionals, backed up by police and EMS, since 2018. The project has missed multiple deadlines to launch. Originally it was expected to launch in fall 2019.

Last fall, Health PEI announced its chosen model would send an armed, non-uniformed police officer to every mobile response, along with a social worker or mental health nurse.

The police-first model is controversial and runs counter to a recommendation put forward by a working group of 18 Island stakeholders including various medical professionals, police, EMS and victim services representatives.

Nonetheless, in February 2021, Health PEI representatives said the program would roll out according to the chosen model in March of this year.

The province and Health PEI backtracked last week announcing Health PEI would offload the project onto privately owned Island EMS. Minister of Health, Ernie Hudson, said in the legislature that the delivery contract is not yet signed. Implementation is further delayed.

In the meantime, Michelle and Tom have filed a complaint to the police commissioner about the response to Tom’s crisis in October.

“I just want to make sure something like this doesn’t happen to anybody else,” Tom said.

He believes none of the officers involved in this incident should be a member of any crisis response team.

Charlottetown City Police declined comment.

Court Case, Crisis Criminalized

To add insult to injury, a few weeks after Tom was discharged from hospital, officers showed at his door summoning him to court. He is charged with resisting arrest, uttering threats and assault on a peace officer in relation to the incident. He has pled not-guilty and his trial is set to begin near the end of March.

“It’s just not right,” Tom said.

“It’s reminiscent of when suicide was illegal,” added Michelle.

Tom and Michelle are now footing the bill for a lawyer to ensure he is well represented in court. Michelle expects this will cost between $1,500 and $3,000. She says while all kinds of public funds are available to cover resources like judge and crown prosecutor salaries, it’s ironic that there weren’t enough public funds available to offer Tom a bed in a mental health unit.

Once he was able to leave ICU at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, he was told he needed to stay involuntarily due to his mental health status but wasn’t afforded care offered in mental health wards. He was kept in a more general ward.

Michelle said whether Tom is found guilty of the charges or not, the criminalizing court process is consuming, stressful and adds to shame and embarrassment that no one deserves.

“People are suffering. This needs to change now,” Michelle said.

If you are in crisis or would like to talk to someone about your mental health, please call the Island Helpline at 1-800-218-2885. If you require immediate attention or emergency support, call 911 or visit the nearest Emergency Room.

Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Graphic