Retired Vancouver city police inspector John McKay testified Thursday at a coroner’s inquest that in his many years experience working with emergency response teams (ERT), the use of a third party to negotiate with persons in a standoff is used only as a last resort and only with set rules.
Speaking at a coroner’s inquest looking into the Sept. 10, 2012 shooting death of Greg Matters, a military veteran suffering from PTSD, McKay said: “It’s high risk, high gain but if it goes south, it’s a mess. If it works, great.”
Mckay said third party intermediators or TPIs, such as close family members, are brought in only when police have exhausted all means of trying to convince the person or persons involved to cooperate, come out and surrender to police.
They are the resource of last resort, he said.
“We only use them if our operators aren’t getting anywhere. [We] script it very tightly,” he said.
Usually they record the person’s voice and perhaps play it a few times and in that way, have control over what is said. The TPI has to be a good candidate and police must decide how best to use them to obtain a positive outcome, he said.
Even though the potential TPI may think he or she has good rapport with the subject, they may not in the mind of the subject. In fact, they could be a trigger. Police may also need time to research the person’s relationship and time is not always there in highly volatile situations, he said.
However, McKay did say that he recalls using third parties to help move along negotiations twice in his career, and those negotiations were successful. The issue about using third parties has surface several times in the inquest as several witnesses have been asked if they thought bringing in Greg Matters’ mother or psychiatrist during the standoff which ultimately took his life could have helped to diffuse the situation.
During his testimony, McKay had up on a screen a Tacticle Resposition circle used as a training model for police to explain how police in Vancouver and elsewhere respond and to an emergency situation. When emergency response teams or ERTs get involved, the movements and behaviour of the subject dictates what happens next and with what force police respond, he noted. With respect to ERTs, he discussed the use of Tasers and firearms, police dogs and he described contain situations where lethal force may be necessary.
He also explained how potentially dangerous situations between the police and people with mental instability are handled in the Lower Mainland.
“Car 87 where are you?”
In Vancouver Car 87 is a code name city police use for a vehicle that can respond immediately to help out in a difficult situations where police are dealing with people who have mental health problems. The car has a psychiatrist (they are on call 24-7) and a police officer, he said.
“They are a great resource for the police (because) they already know a lot of people we are dealing with, people with mental health issues live all over but they are very concentrated on the East Side.”
The problem of people with mental health issues coming into conflict with the law has grown dramatically since the closing of major mental health centres in the area during the ’90s, he said. Now the problem is there is no short-, medium- or long-term support for people now trying to live in communities.
Mckay said he wasn’t suggesting that all people with mental illnesses should be institutionalized, rather he is hoping those who comply with things like taking their prescribed medications should be encouraged to be part of society.
“I was an RCMP officer in the ’70s and in the Lower Mainland we had Riverview and when the facilities closed in the ’90s it became apparent to us it didn’t tun out well for any of us”
McKay says we have an epidemic mental health issue on our hands, one of the biggest issues for police not just in Vancouver but all across Canada, he said. “We’re all dealing with it,” he told the inquest. The issue is becoming so huge in parts of Vancouver, particularly the East Side, that he said, “[we feel like] we’re like a mental institution without walls.
“Our homeless people are, for the most part, mentally ill. I see the same people every day it’s just that one day they’re having a bad day.”
It’s not unusual, he said, that when police are called to the scene and they take people on the street to hospital, the officer can sit in the hospital waiting room all night, if it’s Friday night. The person is seen by doctors, released, and then they are back on the street with no support, he said.
McKay said that on average in Vancouver, “one in three calls that police respond to involve mentally ill people.”