The results of the investigation into Anthony Heffernan’s shooting death at the hands of a Calgary police officer point to a need for major changes in how the Calgary Police Service handles these types of calls.
The Crown declined to prosecute, saying they were unlikely to get a conviction and the police have been criticizing ASIRT for recommending charges at all. Calgary is not alone in experiencing these tragedies: There are major gaps in how police forces across North America deal with mental health and addiction calls, but there is one department that has figured out how to do it right.
The San Antonio Police Department has received a Gold Achievement Award from the American Psychiatric Association for its work. It started its mental health unit training in 2003 and established a full time unit in 2008. It is now comprised of six officers specially trained in crisis intervention management.
I spoke with two of the officers: Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro. The success of the program screams out in the numbers: 2,300 people a month are referred for treatment instead of jailed. More than 100,000 people have been diverted out of the criminal justice system since 2012, saving at least $10 million a year in costs. Most important, of all the mental health calls since 2012 only two have resulted in use of force: once when a patient tried to leave a hospital and was tackled by an officer; another where an officer used a Taser.
One can’t help but contrast this with the last year in Calgary, where two mental health cases, Anthony Heffernan and Dave McQueen, ended in shooting deaths at the hands of the same officer.
Calgary Police Association Howard Burns gave an interview where he said we shouldn’t be critical of the officer because this is how they are trained: they figure out in advance who will use the Taser, who will use deadly force, with batons and pepper spray as back up options. It is as though force is the only tool in their toolbox when dealing with mental health crisis calls.
I’ve been told that Calgary has PACT, a Police and Crisis Team, made up of a police officer and a mental health clinician that can be called in upon request. But then why didn’t Officer Burns mention them as an integral part of the police response to mental health calls? And if they are such a key part of the policing approach in Calgary, why weren’t they the ones to respond to the Heffernan and McQueen calls?
The difference with the San Antonio model seems to be that the police officers ARE the mental health specialists. They are intensively trained in crisis intervention. They show up and introduce themselves by their first names to the person in distress. They deescalate by talking, sharing personal feelings and experiences, they stay calm, they earn trust.
What they don’t do is show up shouting, barking orders, weapons drawn, nerves on a hair trigger, and lethally shoot someone within 72 seconds of arriving on the scene.
If the Calgary Police Service wants to get serious in managing the serious flaws in their response to mental health calls, they should start by giving Ernie and Joe a call.
My interview with Joe Smarro and Ernie Stevens is below. Let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.