Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut November 16, 2016 - 7:00 am

Nunavut RCMP must learn better ways of handling the mentally ill, jury says

Coroner’s inquest jury makes 25 recommendations

THOMAS ROHNER
A coroner’s inquest jury that heard evidence related to the 2012 death of a Nunavut man with serious mental health issues says the RCMP must find non-violent ways of dealing with people who are mentally ill. (FILE PHOTO)
A coroner’s inquest jury that heard evidence related to the 2012 death of a Nunavut man with serious mental health issues says the RCMP must find non-violent ways of dealing with people who are mentally ill. (FILE PHOTO)

The jury that sat on a coroner’s inquest into the 2012 death of a Nunavut man with serious mental health issues says the RCMP must find non-violent ways of dealing with people who are mentally ill.

The six-member jury in Igloolik heard testimony about the death of Felix Taqqaugaq Nov. 1 to Nov. 10 from about 30 witnesses.

Taqqaugaq died March 20, 2012, when an Igloolik RCMP officer shot him three times in the chest.

“The [Government of Nunavut’s] and the RCMP’s goal must be zero shooting deaths for incidents where police interact with individuals with mental illness,” one recommendation said.

The inquest, which was mandatory because Taqqaugaq died at the hands of police, does not assign responsibility.

Instead, the inquest aims to make recommendations on how to avoid similar deaths in the future.

But the 25 recommendations delivered by the jury largely focused on changing the way police interact with mentally ill people in Nunavut.

Taqqaugaq was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was 18, medical records entered into evidence at the inquest show.

He managed his hallucinations with the support of his family and community.

His sister, Elisapee Kappaniaq, had the authority to make medical decisions on his behalf.

When properly medicated, Taqqaugaq behaved like a conscientious father and community member.

He often concerned himself with putting enough food on the table for his children.

Between 2002 and 2011 Taqqaugaq travelled five times to Manitoba for treatment stints at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre.

At each visit, medical staff adjusted his medication because his type of schizophrenia resisted medical treatment.

That means even when on effective medication, Taqqaugaq still had auditory and visual hallucinations.

He hallucinated about angels, demons and spirits, such as visions of antlers with no eyes and he heard voices telling him to harm himself and others.

Whenever his mental state worsened, his sister booked her brother’s next trip from Igloolik down to Manitoba.

The staff at Selkirk said in their reports that Taqqaugaq was “bright and cheerful” and “gets along well with peers,” when responding to medication.

But Taqqaugaq often worried about having enough food for his family during his stays at Selkirk and was often homesick, staff said.

Back in Igloolik on March 20, 2012, Taqqaugaq, in the midst of a psychotic episode, took to local radio and threatened RCMP members, the inquest jury found.

Two officers, Const. Jason Trites and Sgt. Peter Marshall, went to Taqqaugaq’s home.

But while Marshall, the more experienced officer, approached Taqqaugaq’s house with caution, Trites engaged Taqqaugaq on the front porch.

Trites told Taqqaugaq to put his hands behind his back, but Taqqaugaq, distressed and confused, did not comply, the jury found.

As Taqqaugaq retreated back into his home, Trites shot unsuccessfully at Taqqaugaq with a Taser gun. 

Taqqaugaq ran into his home, followed by Marshall and then Trites.

Taqqaugaq grabbed a kitchen knife, at which point Marshall ran back out of the house, past Trites.

“As Const. Trites backed up he drew his issued duty pistol while attempting to block a knife attack with his raised left arm. Const. Trites discharged four shots in quick succession at close range,” the jury said.

Three of those shots hit Taqqaugaq’s chest, while his wife and children looked on.

One shot hit Trites’ finger as he tried to block the knife attack.

Overall, seven of the 25 jury recommendations seemed to address a regular police tactic called “command and control.”

That tactic means if you are in a confrontation with police and do not obey their command, they will assert control over you.

The jury recommended the alternative method of “de-escalating” the confrontation when dealing with those with mental illness.

“The RCMP will make a public commitment to make de-escalation a priority in all potentially violent encounters with people in mental health crisis,” one recommendation said.

Another recommendation appeared to be directed at Trites’ communication approach with Taqqaugaq: “The RCMP will reward officers who use effective communication and de-escalation skills.”

After Taqqaugaq’s death, the Nunavut RCMP hired the Ottawa Police Service to assess whether Trites used excessive force.

The OPS, which has come under fire for internal racism against Inuit recently, cleared Trites.

But the jury’s findings differed from the OPS investigation.

For example, the OPS said Trites was falling back when he shot Taqqaugaq.

At the inquest, the RCMP did not provide any evidence that would have proven that, such as bullet trajectories or blood samples found on Trites.

So the jury did not find that Trites was falling back when he shot Taqqaugaq.

The jury recommended a Use of Force Review Committee review all cases involving police use of force against Nunavummiut to determine if police need more training.

In total, the jury directed over 20 of the recommendations to the RCMP, including eight requiring more police training.

“The RCMP will, in training updates to officers in Nunavut, emphasize communication and verbal de-escalation skills, and the need to adjust communication styles when a person is not acting rationally or does not understand commands,” one recommendation said.

Some of the recommendations on cultural sensitivity were very similar to those delivered by juries at coroner inquests in 2012 and 2015.

All recommendations from coroner’s inquests are non-binding, meaning there are no penalties if organizations do not comply with the recommendations.

That might be why the jury in Taqqaugaq’s inquest made its last recommendation about accountability.

“The RCMP and GN will issue a public report… within one year of this inquest, outlining what they have or have not done to implement these recommendations,” the recommendation said.

 

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