Stigma

A Police “Wellness Check”/”Arrest” Gone Wrong

RCMP Cst. Lacy Browning with her foot on Mona Wang's head during a wellness check
A still from the surveillance video shows Const. Lacy Browning stepping on student Mona Wang’s head after a wellness check by the RCMP on Jan. 20. (Submitted by Bridge Law Corporation)

I’ve written before about defunding the police as a way to approach the mismatch between a police approach and mental health. The picture above from a “wellness check” is a good illustration of just how significant that mismatch is.

In June of this year, information became public about an incident that occurred on January 20, 2020. Mona Wang, a nursing student, had filed a lawsuit against the police force (the RCMP) for the way she was treated during a “wellness check.” This occurred in Kelowna, in British Columbia, Canada, which happens to be the city where my family lives.

The “wellness check”

The night of the incident, Mona was experiencing mental distress, and her boyfriend had called the police out of concern. Cst. Lacy Browning attended to do a “wellness check.”

A CBC article about the incident reports that, according to the papers filed in the lawsuit, Mona was on her bathroom floor when the officer arrived. When she was unable to respond to the officer’s commands to stand up, “Browning proceeded to assault the plaintiff by stepping on the plaintiff’s arm.” The lawsuit also states “Browning kicked the plaintiff in the stomach while the plaintiff was lying on the bathroom floor semi-conscious.” 

CCTV footage from the building’s common areas shows Mona in handcuffs and without a shirt, being dragged along the floor by her arms by the police officer. Video also shows her face-down on the floor in the lobby. At one point, the officer’s foot is shown on her head. Fellow residents can be seen passing through the lobby gawking at what was going on.

The officer apprehended Mona under section 28 of the Mental Health Act and took her to the local hospital. Section 28 allows of the Act police to apprehend someone who’s clearly mentally unwell and a risk to self or others, and take them to hospital. Once that’s done, the section 28 apprehension is completed, and it’s up to the hospital if they feel the need to detain someone under the Mental Health Act for involuntary treatment.

The police officer’s story

Cst. Browning’s response to the lawsuit said that she’d found Mona surrounded by empty pill bottles and a wine bottle. She also had a box cutter in her hand and cuts on her arm.

The officer said she took Mona down to the front door because she wasn’t sure if other emergency personnel would be able to get into the building. I don’t think that holds water, though, because they’ve all got radios, and police and ambulance dispatch can talk to each other. I’ve seen that in action when I worked in community mental health.

When the newspaper gets it wrong

While all of this was in the news a couple of months, I came across something a few days ago that I hadn’t seem before. It was an article online from July 2 by Ron Seymour of the Kelowna Daily Courier, titled “Top cop ‘very sorry’ for way Kelowna student was arrested.” The article was about an apology made by the RCMP District Commander during a press conference. Besides the use of “arrested” in the headline, the term arrest(ed) makes an appearance 5 more times:

  • A photo captions mentions the police Superintendent apologized for the “rough way she was arrested.”
  • The article states: “The behaviour of a Kelowna police officer during the arrest of a distressed university student under the Mental Health Act is of “deep concern” to the region’s top [police officer].”
  • The article mentions an outside police force investigating whether the officer involved should be “charged for the way she arrested Mona Wang”
  • There is mention of “the way in which the Jan. 30 arrest of Wang was conducted.”
  • There is also mention of “surveillance video footage of her arrest.”

This was a Mental Health Act apprehension, not a crime. The general public may not know there’s a difference, but a newspaper has a responsibility to look these things up before publishing. And this wasn’t just the reporter making an error; that headline would have been right in front of an editor.

The paper’s response

I was rather unimpressed, so I emailed the newspaper to point out that yeah, by the way, being crazy isn’t a crime. I got a rather interesting response from the managing editor. He was unaware that a Mental Health Act apprehension wasn’t an arrest. Then came an odd mix of acknowledgement and deflection.

One of the attempts at deflection was to suggest maybe that the RCMP District Commander used the term “arrested”. But a) one doesn’t get to be a top cop by making such a basic error, and b) the RCMP news release that accompanied the press conference didn’t suggest that Mona Wang was arrested; rather, it referred to “mental health-apprehensions under the Provincial Mental Health Act.”

Should police be doing “wellness checks”?

What I take away from this whole mess is that this is a systems issue rather than a one-off. The way police are trained to handle a criminal brandishing a box-cutter is not the right way to handle a “wellness check” with someone who’s semi-conscious and has a box cutter because she’s been self-harming.

It just seems absurd to send police to do an actual wellness check when what they’re trained to do is deal with criminals. The last thing someone needs when they’re acutely unwell and vulnerable is to have a police officer show up with their bulletproof vest, their gun on their hip, and their handcuffs ready to slap on your wrists.

Then your neighbours get see you dragged away in handcuffs. So much for privacy. Might as well put up a sign on your door: warning – crazy person lives here!

And then if the police do haul you away to hospital, the local newspaper might run a headline about you being arrested.

I’ve had the police show up at my door before. That could have been me.

But if you ask me, it’s not us crazy people that are getting it wrong here.

You can find more about mental illness stigma on the Stop Stigma page.

37 thoughts on “A Police “Wellness Check”/”Arrest” Gone Wrong”

  1. Geez Louise – that police officer should be charged with assault! I hope the woman is suing the police department for a boatload of money and I hope she gets it! When are police officers everywhere going to start reading the newspapers (or even social media) and get it through their heads that they can’t get away with this kind of behavior! (I’m already pissed and annoyed about something personal today, so this pisses me off even more! LOL )

    1. Damage awards in civil suits in Canada tend to be a lot lower than in the US, so she probably won’t get all that much money. There hasn’t been a decision yet about criminal charges, but I hope they’ll be laid.

      And yeah, with all the stuff that’s been in the news, you’d think that the police would have clued in they need to get their shit together.

  2. Growing up we were taught to respect the police, they were the good guys.
    It was instilled in us to also fear getting arrested. Thank goodness none of us were ever arrested.
    I find this approach unacceptable, if I were in charge that officer would be on the unemployed line.
    It bothers me also that actions like this makes it hard for those who are experiencing mental health distress to disclose their fragile situation. More stigma on top of already existing stigma.
    I know of one case a person used a fictitious name while in the Mental Health Ward. I do not blame them for doing so.
    North America needs to overhaul its police forces. How to do it is the big question?

    1. Yes it is. And I agree, an overhaul is needed with the whole system. The police as an institution should deserve our trust, but in far too many cases they’ve totally botched that.

  3. That’s unconscionable, and I think she has a very good lawsuit on her hands. There’s no excuse for that.

    I’ve had unusually good experiences with this situation. In one, my sister was distraught over something really bad that had happened, and the police and firemen (no clue why) showed up while she was hysterical on the floor of our porch in the fetal position. They were very compassionate, and you could tell they felt bad for her; and they took her to the ER for treatment.

    Another time, they did a wellness check on my brother, who’d gone off the grid after another horrible relationship breakup. (My brother and I both crave romantic love and can’t seem to find it.) The police were very nice to him and just asked if he was okay, from what I recall.

    I’ve never borne witness to police behavior run amock, but I don’t doubt it. I think I’ve lucked out. That doesn’t mean I’m always in their corner, but I’ve witnessed them try hard.

    That said, I think your idea for wellness checks to be performed by trained social workers is just downright brilliant.

    1. Yeah, there are definitely good police officers, but there are quite a few of them who have no idea how to handle mental illness, even if they don’t go so far as being assaultive. It’s just weird to have mental health lumped in as a police responsibility in the first place.

  4. That’s horrifying. It makes me even more paranoid of having the police involved IF I need assistance when my mental illness might get out of hand. It’s happened to me once, in a way, when at a ‘routine’ PHYSICAL exam (my insurance company wants their clients to have a complete physical once a year). The health care provider (the ‘clinic’ was in a mobile van, and was through a company that goes about in the van performing these kinds of physicals) was obviously new at her job (‘green’ to me) and in response to the standard question “Do you feel depressed?” I answered quite honestly “yes I do. I have chronic depression.” She got twitchy and said “Well I think you should go ‘check yourself into the local hospital”. I tried (vainly) to explain that I’m under a therapists’ care and take my medications regularly. She still kept insisting and next thing I knew, some cops came into the van and asked me to go with them. I asked why and they said “Because of concern you’re a danger to yourself”. My goodness!! There was a crisis worker at the local hospital and they called him and I had to wait and then talk to him (thankfully they let me drive my own vehicle to the hospital) but they followed me and made sure I went and checked in). Fortunately the crisis worker suffers from chronic depression himself and understood my situation. It could have gotten a LOT uglier. If medical professionals can’t understand mental illness and when there IS a real danger, what hope do the cops have? Your post today has raised my red flags. And I have to wonder how many who do have mental illness will now go ‘underground’ (so to speak) because of what happened to that woman. It’s better to hide than to submit to some sadistic assh*le being allowed to complicate matters.

    1. Yes, it’s definitely the kind of thing that’s likely to make people reluctant to call for help.

      I had gone to a clinic one time about a physical issue, and the resident doctor decided that I was suicidal. Luckily she only kept me there for an hour rather than calling the cops. It’s bizarre how scared some health professionals are of mental illness.

  5. Well done for writing to the newspaper. I saw the footage of this and read a few poorly worded headlines and worse articles. The way she was treated, and the bruising I saw on her face when she did a social media video after the event, should never have happened. I get wellness checks to a point, but not like this. In the media, the deflection of the officer’s actions was about ‘well she had a box cutter’. Yeah, to harm herself with not others. She was totally out of it, she wasn’t fighting back. She looks weak and like she’s trying to ask something but just gets shoved down. It sadly shows just how much work is needed to both change the way policing is done and to challenge the stigma around mental health. Excellent piece, Ashley.xx

  6. If any people are still living in denial of institutional bias against minorities and mentally ill, please consider these examples. Also, with newspapers practically dead, it might behoove them to have a role: help end oppression or at least be accurate.

  7. I 100% agree that Wellness Checks shouldn’t be performed by police. Maybe paramedics, at least they can offer physical help in case of suicide attempts, but police have no business doing it.
    It probably started with Property Checks and just morphed into people checks.🤷🏼‍♀️still wrong.

    Older Daughter’s BFF worked as an EMT for a while and told me of responding to a call and getting in an officer’s face to make him back down from arresting a person having a mental health crisis. She and her partner took the person (who was combative) to hospital. The police might have killed them for being combative.

    I’m sorry to see the RCMP is just as messed up as police here in US.

  8. I haven’t seen the video and I know I would find it distressing if I watched. The still is enough to show me that it was handled badly. It never should have been dealt with that way. That was assault by the police officer on that lady.
    I hope they do have to cough up money and pay damages by this. Its disgusting this happened and yes, people with mental health issues are going to be reluctant to come forward for the fear of being treated like this and not being under.
    Looking at the still alone, you think there had been a serious crime going on. Not someone who needed help.

  9. Police obviously don’t know how to handle people with mental illnesses. They show that time and time again. So, why are police still being dispatched instead of medical personnel?

  10. What? Even Croatian police doesn’t do that! Actually, we have more problems with medical staff than the police.

  11. This is horrible. Here the police comes into action when they are needed (and that happens with mental health issues too sometimes) but mostly, like in this case, it would be an ambulance that would show up at this lady’s home. Try to talk her into the ambulance to bring her into hospital. When she would be too aggressive or having a gun or so, police would come.
    I also find it scary for the boyfriend. How can you help someone in need in the future when you see this as a result? This is not encouraging to open the dialogue about people and their loved ones dealing with a crisis.

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