By Derek Newman-Stille
Content warning for discussions of police violence and the murder of disabled people and BIPOC people
Police are being sent to do “wellness checks” on people who are reported by friends and family to be in a mental health crisis. Most people call 911 when someone they know is believed to be having a mental health crisis… but increasingly, media is illustrating something that many of us in the disabled community have known for years – police are the ones doing these “wellness checks” and all too often, these “wellness checks” are resulting in violence toward and the murder of the people who the police are supposed to be checking on.
On May 26, 2020, during a “wellness check” by Nanaimo BC RCMP officers, Shanna Blanchard was beaten by police and left with a broken nose, bruised ribs, and damaged teeth. She was placed in a “spit hood”, which is used to keep incarcerated people from spitting, but this was placed in such a way that she couldn’t breathe. According to CTV news, she repeatedly told the officer that she couldn’t breathe and the officer responded “If you’re speaking, you’re breathing.’
According to CBC News, Blanchard’s son called 911 when Blanchard was in the bathroom crying due to her continual experience of depression. She states to CBC news “I’ve been struggling with depression through COVID. I lay on the floor and cried and cried and cried – I was really upset”. Blanchard’s son did what most people do when someone is in crisis… and it’s something we are constantly told to do. When in crisis, we are told that we should call 911. We expect help from professionals when we call 911… we don’t expect the police to come and beat up or murder the person they are supposed to be checking on. Yet, this happens regularly and its only now getting attention.
CBC News points out that Blanchard “is now speaking out about her story a month later because she thinks police should not be the people responding to calls for mental health and wellness checks”. She told CBC news that she was already fearful of police before the event and when she heard male officers outside her bathroom, she told them that she would come out if the paramedics were called instead. She told CBC news that after officers convinced her to exit, they punched her in the face and later that her face struck a bannister while police were dragging her down the stairs.
Earlier this week, a video surfaced showing an RCMP officer dragging nursing student Mona Wang and stepping on her head during a “wellness check”. CBC news reports that the officer said that “only necessary force was used to subdue the student”. Even if Wang was a danger to herself or others, there are ways of subduing someone through nonviolent holds. I can’t imagine anything that can excuse someone stepping on someone’s face. According to CBC news, Wang reported being unable to stand up when officer Browning demanded she stand up and Browning then repeatedly assaulted her and stood on her arm, and kicked her in the stomach while she was semi-conscious. The officer then reportedly dragged Wang into the hallway in handcuffs and dragged her down the hallway while punching her in the face. The legal response to this in support of officer Browning states “the limited use of force by the defendant Browning was no more than was reasonable and necessary in the circumstances to both direct compliance as well as protect the plaintiff from further harm”. It is difficult to imagine that this situation was considered “limited use of force” and raises questions about what is considered a “normal” use of force in situations where police are dealing with people in mental health crises.
I want to especially bring attention to the word “compliance” in officer Browning’s statement of defence. This word is frequently used around areas of police violence. Often in cases where police violence occurs, the officer will comment on the lack of “compliance” from the public that they are encountering. This points out that much of the violence happening is because people are not immediately doing what they are told by the police. There is an assumption here that the act of saying “no” or being unable to do what they are told is viewed as a hostile act by police.
I want to also point out that these acts of violence during “wellness checks” have also resulted in the deaths of at least 4 people in Canada since April, as noted by CBC News Nova Scotia . Chantel Moore was fatally shot by police during a wellness check in early June. She was a 26 year old woman from the Tla-o-qui-aht First nation in British Columbia. According to CBC News New Brunswick, the officer involved claimed that he shot moore because she allegedly had a knife. They point out that a former boyfriend of Chantel Moore’s called in for a wellness check on her because she was being harassed. She was already in a situation of experiencing violence in the form of harassment and police were called to help her cope with that, but this resulted in her murder. It’s incredibly concerning that she was killed during an act that was supposed to bring her support and help.
Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29 year old living in Toronto, also died during an encounter with the police during a “wellness check”. CBC News Toronto points out that Korchinski-Paquet has been experiencing seizures for the past 5 years and has been requiring occasional help from the police during that time. During a wellness check by the police, Korchinski-Paquet fell from her 24th floor apartment building. A special investigations unit is currently examining the circumstances around her fall and the lawyer from the family has indicated that the process so far “limits transparency” according to CBC News Toronto.
D’Andre Campbell, a 26 year old black man with schizophrenia, was shot by police on April 6 in Brampton after having called the Peel Regional Police for help. This is a case where he actively reached out for assistance and the result was his death. As of June 11, 2020, CBC News Toronto reported that the officer who shot D’Andre Campbell refused to provide an interview or turn over his notes to investigators in the case. According the the article, the officer “cannot be legally compelled to present themselves for an interview to the SIU”. This is a concerning policy and illustrates the protection that is afforded to police officers that is not afforded to the people who are shot by them.
D’Andre Campbell’s sister Shenika Malcolm reported to CBC News Toronto “He called out for help, and the system that was supposed to help him failed him. There was no imminent threat… and no de-escalation methods”. During the encounter, a taser was used by two officers and one officer shot D’Andre multiple times.
I want to highlight here that many of the people being killed during “wellness checks” are BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour) people. There is a history of racism in this country that also intertwines with ableism and BIPOC people who manage mental health are often victims of violence from police, medical authorities, and the general public. Indeed CBC New Brunswick points out that “black and indigenous people are overwhelmingly over-represented in fatal encounters with police.”
Police are not trained to deal with mental health crises. They are trained to think of the people they are interacting with as a threat. They aren’t equipped to deal with mental health or disability and too often, these incidents of violence occur when a person is already in crisis.
These situations also highlight a dangerous ableism amongst the police community and it is something that needs to be examined. These are cases where people are in need of help and either they or their families are reaching out for police support, and yet the results are either fatal or extremely violent for the person who is already in crisis. Police should not be involved in “wellness checks” and these recent deaths and acts of violence highlight that fact.
This system of police involvement in “wellness checks” needs to be critically examined and questioned. Disabled and BIPOC lives are at risk and we need to examine the way that systemic ableism and racism is involved in these acts of violence.