I’ve written before about a police wellness check gone wrong that resulted in an unconscious woman being dragged along the floor, in handcuffs and without a shirt on, by a police officer doing a so-called wellness check. In this latest story of a wellness check gone wrong, CBC News reports on an incident where police in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, went to the wrong house, retraumatizing the family inside.
On March 24/21, 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”. They guessed wrong. Oops.
Some officers walked around towards the back of the house and banged their flashlights on the windows of an 11-year-old’s bedroom. Officers started asking him questions about the house and its address that he didn’t know the answers to. When he said he wanted to go get his older brother, an officer told him not to move. If that kid didn’t piss his pants right then and there, I’d very impressed with him.
Other officers walked through the unlocked front door, supposedly “announcing themselves before and during their entry,” according to a police statement. However, the single mother of the family said nope, that was not the case.
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.
This incident would have been unquestionably retraumatizing for the family, given that, as the CBC article reports:
For several years, the Congolese-Canadian lived in shelters with her children after fleeing domestic violence. Ngoto and her four sons have had negative experiences with police involving racial profiling, she said.
If someone is in mental distress, who’s the most appropriate person to deal with it, or at least take the lead? Mental health professionals, or police barging around through a house with guns out and issuing orders to children?
If there is a concern about violence, that’s what police are trained to deal with. But for a typical mental health “wellness check,” should armed, uniformed police be leading the show? If the distress call isn’t someone holding a weapon ready to act imminently, is it appropriate to just walk into someone’s house and tromp arounds like elephants? And why on God’s green earth is a gun out? A “wellness check” that actually involves walking in unannounced with firearms out sounds a whole lot more like a no-knock raid, and we all know how well those work out (RIP Breonna Taylor).
Now this poor traumatized, and now retraumatized, family has had the shit scared out of them. Do you think they’ll ever trust the cops? I sure as hell wouldn’t if they randomly showed up outside my bedroom door with a gun out.
Police are trained to deal with criminals and with potentially violent situations. Let’s keep them focused on what they can do that no one else can. But the pure mental health stuff? Mental illness isn’t a crime, and it shouldn’t be a police matter unless there are specific factors that make it one.
What are your thoughts on police conducting “wellness checks” and the potential for (re)traumatizing those involved?
You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.
A Brief History of Stigma is the upcoming new release from Mental Health @ Home Books. It looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.
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