MH@H Mental Health

A (Re)Traumatizing Police Wellness Check

A (Re)Traumatizing police wellness check gone wrong - graphic of a police officer with a gun

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?

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16 thoughts on “A (Re)Traumatizing Police Wellness Check”

  1. I agree that police shouldn’t be doing wellness checks like this. If police had the training of mental health professionals and went in with that training in mind and without weapons, then maybe it would be ok, but I think it would be easier to just have mental health professionals doing them. I don’t know how it works in Canada, but I’m guessing you have something like the United States’ 911 system up there. I think that 911 should have an option for mental health crises along with the standard fire, police, and medical (as in physical health) issues and there should be a team like EMTs specifically for mental health crises. I know I could’ve utilized something similar in the past

    1. Yes, I think something like that could make a huge difference. My city’s police force has a dedicated mental health car with a team of a plainsclothes cop and a mental health nurse. It’s not enough by any means to deal with all the mental health calls, but it’s better than nothing.

  2. This is horrible, and it was very difficult to read about. My kneejerk reaction was, LAWSUIT!! I sincerely hope this family consults a lawyer. So often people don’t even think to, but many lawyers work on a contingency basis (taking a percentage of the award) and only charge for paper copies, minor court costs, etc. I’ll be really upset if this family doesn’t realize that they should seek legal counsel.

    Here in Louisville, we’ve had wellness checks done for my brother and for neighbors of ours. The police are really good about it. They knock on the door and ask the person living there if they’re okay. My dad sent them to do one on an elderly neighbor who quit showing up on walks. The man had an agoraphobic wife, and the police knew who he was, and they wanted to help, ya know? And with my brother, they were never overly forceful, like, you HAVE to answer the door. They weren’t even like that when I called 911 because my brother and sister were about to engage in mortal combat. They told my brother to go run some errands to put some distance between him and Ellen, and Ellen stormed into her room and refused to talk to them altogether, and they didn’t press the point (although I tried to get her to talk to them).

    I think I got into it once with my brother, back when he and I had a volatile relationship (which I’m going to blame squarely on our difficult upbringing), and I’d accused him of stealing something of mine which it turns out he didn’t steal. (I found it later where I’d left it. Not one of my finer moments.) The police were like, “Look, you can’t just block his path and not let him leave,” and he was doing that silent laughter thing he does when he’s stressed, which sure the hell wasn’t helping. They asked me to take my hands out of my pockets, but I suspect they were afraid I had something in there. I can understand that. Then it was just a brazen power struggle.

    That was on my mind prior to reading your blog post because I spoke to my mother on the phone just now (eyeroll), and she has a tendency to remind me of unpleasant things that I’d rather forget, as I’m sure you can imagine, by virtue of being her. Then there was the time I threatened my brother with a knife. I feel true remorse about these things, but he appears to have forgiven me; and we grew up all wrongly together, and it was messed up; but he’s a great brother!! I hope I didn’t go off the subject there too much. Great blog post!! Very thought provoking!

    1. Canada’s far less litigious than the US is. I’m not sure if that’s because our laws are different or legal culture is different, or if courts just don’t award enough damages to make it worth it unless there’s been substantial harm.

      I’m glad you and your brother have a much better relationship now!

  3. Gosh, this is really enraging! How come such a procedure can be called a wellness check? How can we blame people for blaming things like mass shootings on the mentally ill when it’s the police who instill such thinking in people that being mentally ill is pretty much the same as being a criminal?!

  4. You probably know too much about what I think about the subject. Unless they are specially trained to deal with mental illness, cops (IMHO) have no business dealing with it at all. Now there is the further complication about whether the mentally ill individual is acting violently, which is the police’s domain. It’s a very delicate situation all the same, requiring tact and calm TALKING (in my layman’s opinion), and certainly no weapons need to be made evident. That woman in your example today would be justified in making a complaint against those officers that charged into her home and scared the pants off everyone.

    I know how I’d react if such a thing occurred and it wouldn’t be in a positive nor calm manner. I’d no doubt end up in jail because I’d be frightened/terrorized enough if an armed person came into my home uninvited, even if it were a cop. They better have a damned good reason for doing so. I realize the information they had was faulty for the situation in your tale, but that’s little excuse for doing that. How nasty!

    The police need to start being aware, but better still taking action about getting some police trained to deal with mental illness situations. There are enough of those situations out there now, and the number is growing I bet.

    1. You would think it would jeopardize the officer’s safety to continue to do things this way, because a slot of people would not react well. Dealing with escalation and de-escalating are two very different skills sets, and most officers probably aren’t going to have both.

  5. In no way should police handle any calls that may be dealing with someone who is having a “mental illness” flare up.
    I think there needs to be something done to re-organize how to handle wellness checks. The current configuration is not working here in Canada and our neighbors to the south.
    Stories like this one only breeds more distrust with the population.
    This is becoming an epidemic and it is going to reach a boiling point.

  6. I think that wellness checks should be done by people who have the expertise in the appropriate wellness matters.

    One other thing I’ll add is that unless there’s something I’m missing, police officers aren’t trained on mental health matters. If that’s indeed the case, I really don’t think it should be police responding to mental health matters.

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