I’ve written before about defunding the police as a way to address the mismatch of the standard police approach and appropriate mental health crisis response. The picture below 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 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… 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 dispatchers can talk to each other. I’ve seen that in action when I worked in community mental health.
When the newspaper gets it wrong
This was in the news a couple of months ago, but a few days ago, I came across something new. It was an online article from July 2 by Ron Seymour of the Kelowna Daily Courier; the title was “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 external investigation into 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 that’s fine. 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 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 news release that accompanied the press conference didn’t refer to an arrest; 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 seems absurd to send police to do an actual wellness check when their training is in dealing 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!
If the police 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.
CBC News reported that on March 24, 2021, police had received a call from a woman saying a man was “threatening self-harm”. The address she gave was incorrect, so the police narrowed down the location where the call came from. Based on that, they guessed which house to head to go to for a “wellness check”.
The officers pounded on the window of an 11-year-old’s bedroom window and walked in through the unlocked front door. When an older boy emerged from his bedroom, When the eldest son in the family came out of his bedroom, he saw an officer with “this huge-ass gun in his hand.” The officers continued walking through the house and “barged into” (CBC’s words) the upstairs bedroom of a family friend.
So much for “wellness.” The police never found the person they’d been called about, but they certainly caused a lot of distress while they were looking. This is not the right way to be handling mental health crises.
You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.