Changing the Culture of Canadian Policing

Former Calgary cop Terry Coleman inspires a better response to people in mental health crisis

By Doug Horner

Printed on yellow cardstock and taped to the wall next to the two computer monitors on Terry Coleman’s desk, the quote from Aristotle outlines a formula for success: First, have a definite, clear, practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end.

Coleman has an affinity for big-picture, strategic thinking. He studied the measurement of organizational performance of police organizations for his Ph.D. from the University of Regina. He was also a cop in Calgary for 27 years and then the chief of police in Moose Jaw for another 10. In the early 2000s Coleman formed an unlikely partnership with a forensic psychologist from Ontario. Coleman and Dorothy Cotton set themselves the ambitious goal of reforming how police respond to citizens in a mental health crisis. They collaborated on pioneering research and advocacy that inspired a paradigm shift in the culture of Canadian policing.

Police have a complex and challenging job. Except for paramedics, emergency room staff and firefighters, they’re the only public service available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We call the cops if there’s a bank robbery. We call the cops if we come across a 3-year-old wandering alone. We call the cops if we see someone running naked outside in the middle of winter.

They have also become the front line for a chronically underfunded and overwhelmed mental health system. Police agencies across Canada are reporting year-over-year increases in the number of calls involving people in a mental health crisis. The most recent Statistics Canada numbers, from a 2012 survey, indicate that five million Canadians come into contact with police every year. Of those, 18.8 per cent, or about one in five, meet the criteria for having a mental health or substance use disorder.

These encounters are not always positive. In the spring of 2018 the CBC published the first national database on police-involved fatalities. It took six months to compile the numbers from thousands of coroner reports, court records and interviews with families. Between 2000 and 2017, police killed 461 people in Canada. The CBC found that over 70 per cent of the victims had mental health and substance abuse problems.

I drove to High River in early June to meet Coleman and to learn about what police services are doing to improve how they respond to people in crisis. I was also curious about what inspired a police officer turned police chief with decades of experience on the street to devote the second half of his career to convincing people that cops should behave more like social workers.

Police have become the front line for a chronically underfunded and overwhelmed mental health system, and these encounters are not always positive.

At 73, Coleman is still at it. He has the air of an engineer, someone with faith in the power of practical solutions—and a pen in his dress shirt pocket to jot them down when they occur to him. He works as a public safety consultant, and his home office is mission control. Coleman teaches two online courses, one on organized crime for Athabasca University and the other at Dalhousie University about strategic human resources. He has testified as an expert witness on de-escalation and mental health at several police-involved-fatality inquests and reviewed the training curriculums at police academies across Canada.

Before I arrived that afternoon, Coleman had received an email from a Toronto Star reporter. Durham police had arrested two people on what had been a mental-health-related call and the reporter wanted Coleman’s opinion on the video clip.

“It’s an expectation and a legitimate service of the police to attend to people in these sorts of states of crisis or distress,” said Coleman (who moved to Calgary from England in his early twenties and still speaks with a subtle accent). He explained that the term “mental health crisis” includes a range of conditions and behaviour. A diabetic who is hypoglycemic, for example, can have delusions and psychotic episodes. The umbrella term includes people with brain injuries, people on drugs, people under a lot of stress. All of us, including police, are vulnerable. “I always say, and it’s been supported by the literature, policing is a human service,” he said.

Coleman also got a request that morning to review the latest version of a new type of de-escalation training the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services is considering implementing at the provincial police college. A multidisciplinary team from across Canada developed the training program. The group includes academics, police officers, use-of-force instructors, forensic psychologists, mental health clinicians and people with lived experience of a mental illness.

The team also employed theatre professionals. “It used actors, not police officers pretending they’re a person with a mental illness, because that’s been fairly common in recent times and it’s ineffective—totally ineffective,” Coleman said. He’s been a part of the federally funded project since it got off the ground in 2017.

We sat in armchairs in the living room, which overlooked the backyard and a gradual hill down to a wooded streambed. The verdant setting, vintage wallpaper and exposed wood beams gave the house the feel of a rural cottage. Coleman grew up in the East Sussex village of Isfield, just north of the English Channel. “It was always talked about on the farm. ‘Strong guy, tall guy—you’d make a good police officer,’” he said. Watching a short film about the Stampede helped draw the young man to Calgary in 1967. “This was pretty exciting for an English farm kid. Riding bulls? Chuckwagon racing just seemed wild.”

Reality fell short of that vision of a tough cop wrestling his way out of scraps and bringing swift justice to unsavoury characters. He joined the Calgary Police Service in 1969 and found himself responding to situations with vulnerable people in desperate situations. “These people were not involved in criminal activity, but they were involved in health issues,” Coleman said. “We had absolutely nothing in the way of preparation.”

Looking back, knowing what he knows now, Coleman wishes he had approached numerous interactions differently. One in particular made an indelible impression. “It was not far from Marda Loop. These things stick with you, and if the house is still there, I could probably take you to it,” Coleman said. It was around 1976 and he and his partner were assigned to apprehend a woman for a psychiatric assessment. The family had obtained an order for her apprehension by police under the Mental Health Act.

They arrived midmorning and the husband answered the door. Two kids in their early teens were also home. “She was obviously acting irrationally. You could see that when you came in. She was very agitated. She spoke loud and she would… I’m not sure she screamed, but she would shout out.” They tried to calm the woman, who was in her late 30s, but she refused to co-operate. “Looking back on it, she was scared. Very, very scared.” Coleman described how the situation escalated. “She fought and fought and fought. In the end—this is sort of the part that I really regret—we rolled her over on the chesterfield and handcuffed her, and dragged her into the car screaming.”

Throughout the ordeal, Coleman kept thinking there had to be a better way.

Dorothy Cotton experienced the same sort of unfortunate circumstances, but from another perspective. She was promoted to administrative director of forensic services at the Kingston Psychiatric Hospital in Ontario in 1999. The unit treated people found unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible for their actions. The new role brought her into regular contact with police. As Cotton got to know some of the officers, they started coming to her with questions.

“The police would have people who they were extremely concerned with out on the street,” she said. Someone refusing to go to a shelter, even though it’s the middle of winter and they might freeze to death. Someone regularly wandering into traffic. Someone calling 911 dozens of times a day.

“There was a trend, certainly during the years when I worked in forensics, when you had people who clearly had substantial mental health problems, but somehow weren’t able to access the mental health system,” Cotton said. She explained how the problem began in the 1970s, when psychiatric institutions were shut down but funding for community-based mental health supports never materialized.

Without other options, police charged people with minor offences: vagrancy, disturbing the peace, jaywalking. Once charges were laid, the courts could step in and order the person to a psychiatric hospital. “I started becoming really aware of the completely no-win situation the police were in—that they would see people out there who were very ill, who really needed help, but they didn’t have the resources or there was nothing they could do,” she said.

And so Cotton reached out to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP). Her message was similar to Coleman’s sentiment that day in Marda Loop: The police and the mental health system are working with the same people. Why not find some way to coordinate resources? There had to be a better way. “I actually think [the CACP] misunderstood, and thought I was talking about the mental health of police officers, because they sent the letter to the human resources committee,” Cotton said.

Luckily, Coleman, with his penchant for strategic thinking, served on that committee. (He still does.) He remembered how his colleagues were stymied by Cotton’s proposal. Even as a forensic psychologist, she was an outsider. Police have traditionally been stubbornly insular organizations and suspicious of external influence. The committee, which has about 20 members, meets in person three times a year. It had taken about a year and a half before Coleman even stepped forward. “I put up my hand and volunteered and the rest actually changed my professional life,” he said.

Coleman and Cotton met for the first time in Quebec City in 2002 and launched the inaugural Psychiatrists in Blue conference later that same year. They organized the conference in cities across Canada for the next five years. It was the first national forum for police to get together and not only learn from international experts in the field of mental health and de-escalation, but also to share ideas about what was working in different parts of the country.

“It was very clear to me early on that this was probably the most important thing I was ever going to do with my life,” Cotton said. She quit her job at the hospital after getting pressured to stop working with Coleman. Hospital leadership thought her research collaboration with a police chief added to the stigma that people with a mental illness were more prone to criminal behaviour. “I was very dogged—my mother always called me Dorothy Persistence.”

After the Mental Health Commission of Canada was created in 2007, it tapped Coleman and Cotton for research on how police are trained to handle interactions with people in mental health crisis. Out of that work came a proposed learning model called TEMPO: Training and Education about Mental Illness for Police Organizations, completed in 2010. Coleman and Cotton provided a comprehensive update in 2014. It was a blueprint for the type of training Coleman wished he’d had before setting out on his career as a police officer.

New officers are trained at a variety of facilities across the country. Some provinces, such as Ontario and BC, have one authoritative academy that trains every officer, except for the RCMP, which runs its own facility in Regina. In Alberta, the Lethbridge, Calgary and Edmonton police services all deliver different training programs. TEMPO was the first effort to create a national baseline for teaching police how to respond to people undergoing a mental health crisis. It was designed as a gap analysis tool so that each training program could identify what they were getting right and where they needed to improve. It was not mandatory, however, and training facilities could pick and choose what, if anything, to implement.

Before Bill Moore became the executive director of the CACP in July of 2017, he had been a deputy chief with the Halifax Regional Police and in charge of the service’s mental health programming. He credits Cotton and Coleman with inspiring a profound shift in the perception of what constitutes legitimate police work.

“They were probably instrumental in the concept of a police officer as a social response person,” Moore said. “They assisted in making it part of mainstream policing.” And with TEMPO they supplied a roadmap for cultivating the requisite skills. “The second thing they did is they assisted in bringing an increased level of professionalism in the way that we did it.”

That kind of change had to come from within in order to take root, explained Moore. “[Coleman] was an insider. He was a chief of police. He had immediate credibility in the policing community because he’d walked in our shoes.” And when Coleman and Cotton cracked that door open, they made room for others to follow.

Jennifer Lavoie, an associate professor of criminology from Wilfrid Laurier University, has noticed a significant change in the last few years in police services requesting outside help from academics and researchers. This trend is especially pronounced in determining how best to prepare officers to respond to people in crisis. “You’ve really seen a willingness, an openness, that I haven’t seen before in police services,” Lavoie said. “They see that they can’t approach this alone anymore.”

She cited several reports on high profile, police-involved fatalities from across Canada in recent years that have ratcheted up the pressure on police to make substantive changes. The latest review of police conduct in Alberta was undertaken by retired Court of Queen’s Bench chief justice Neil Wittmann and published in the spring of 2018. Then-Calgary police chief Roger Chaffin asked Wittmann to examine the service’s use of force after officers shot 10 people, killing five, in 2016. It was the most shootings by any police service across the country that year. Wrote Wittmann, “I have found that there remains an urgent need to explore and address the issue of police encounters with persons in crisis.”

The former justice made 65 recommendations for reform, many of which emphasized the need for better de-escalation and crisis intervention training. Lavoie described how many of these independent reports keep coming back to the matter of training. She has also studied the efficacy of mobile crisis teams, which include a police officer and mental health professional responding to calls together. “Most services don’t have the funding for mobile crisis teams. Those that do can’t offer the services 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.

Several Alberta cities, including Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer and Grande Prairie, have Police and Crisis Teams (PACTs), which are jointly funded with Alberta Health Services. The teams, comprised of an officer and a mental health clinician, are on call seven days a week, from 6:00 a.m. to midnight. Wittmann’s review, however, noted that they’re used in a post-crisis capacity. They’re called in after the initial emergency response.

“We have to train officers, all front-line officers, on how to respond to people in mental health crisis,” Lavoie said. She is one of the lead researchers on the new scenario-based training program Coleman works on.

The research project is in the second year of a four-year term, and officers from the Durham Regional Police Service are helping to test the scenarios. The team is gathering evidence to see if the program develops a specific set of competencies associated with de-escalation. “It’s one of the first studies in Canada to look at whether a particular type of training, in this case scenario-based training, is effective and will lead to performance changes,” Lavoie said. This evidence-based approach is part of what attracted the attention of the Ontario government. The team has also fielded inquiries from several police academies from across Canada.

Many of the core ideas in TEMPO have been implemented in the new training program. Lavoie described how an officer works through one of the scenarios and then talks with a panel of experts about how it unfolded. Mental health clinicians, use-of-force instructors, people with lived experience of mental illness, and police trainers all provide feedback on how the officer handled the simulation. Coleman and Cotton recommended this kind of multidisciplinary approach, specifically highlighting the value of including people who have experienced mental illness. TEMPO was a direct challenge to the status quo of having only police train the police.

“Much of the feedback we get from officers after the training is around how impactful it was to hear about the experiences of people with significant mental illness, and to understand recovery,” Lavoie said. Cops invariably meet people who are having a very bad day. Sometimes they encounter the same person, under the same awful circumstances, over and over again. Police don’t have as much exposure to people who get better or to how, with the right supports, people with a chronic mental illness can lead regular lives. “I think that message gets across in those lived experience stories that are shared with the officers,” she said.

Lavoie described how Coleman made a big impression on the research team at one of the first meetings back in 2017. He was on a video call from his home office in High River when he introduced the concept of procedural justice. “The idea of police responding to people—all people, but especially people in crisis or with mental health challenges—with dignity, fairness, respect. And how those principles, that way of responding to a person, can engender de-escalation,” Lavoie said.

Procedural justice is not a new idea. Coleman said the basic tenets have been applied in policing for a long time, but they weren’t explicitly articulated as part of a coherent philosophy. “It’s about fairness. It’s about due process,” Coleman said. “At the end of the day, the person understands what is happening to them and why.” He first heard the term procedural justice used in relation to policing at criminology conferences in the US in the wake of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The unrest began in 2014 after Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed African-American, was killed by a white police officer.

It takes time and patience for police to engage with people in crisis in such a way that they understand and accept what’s happening. “We didn’t do that the day I had the bad experience,” Coleman said of his interaction with the woman in Marda Loop. He estimated that he and his partner were at the house for no more than half an hour. “I’m not sure we were in a hurry to go to another call. We were just trying to get it over with. We didn’t take the time.”

Coleman described a recent case in Calgary where he thought police did exercise patience and take the time needed to resolve the situation peacefully. In late May officers responded to reports of a domestic incident at a house in the community of Panorama. They waited outside the home for 16 hours before the man gave himself up. Coleman explained how the traditional model of policing taught officers to stand their ground. Responding to people in crisis requires an understanding of when to take a step back.

 BEFORE I LEFT HIS HOUSE IN HIGH RIVER, Coleman showed me a memo written by the superintendent of the East Sussex Constabulary. It was framed and hung on the wall just inside the front door. The document was dated September 15, 1940, and outlined how Coleman’s grandfather, during the Battle of Britain, apprehended a German pilot who’d crashed into the field right next to where he was farming. Coleman’s grandfather, unarmed except for a pitchfork, escorted the prisoner back to his house, locked him in the shed out back and then had someone go to the nearest telephone to alert the police. Coleman doubts his grandfather had some innate gift for de-escalation. The pilot was probably only too happy to make a graceful exit from the Second World War.

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