On Nov. 20, 2020, Assistant Professor Idil Abdillahi from Ryerson University was invited to give the 17th annual Hunsberger Memorial Lecture at Wilfrid Laurier University. Abdillahi’s focus was the criminalization of mental illness in the Black community. Excerpts from her lecture, “What’s wrong with Black folk? Trauma, Black psychiatrized madness, and the state’s response,” are used in this story.
Though long-term impacts are still unfolding as the pandemic tapers off, mental health professionals have been sounding the alarm about the “silent pandemic” for over a year. The disruption and uncertainty around the pandemic have led to increasing rates of social isolation, anxiety, depression, as well as substance and alcohol abuse.
In addition to the impacts of the pandemic, Black Canadians experience higher levels of adverse health and well-being outcomes as they have to cope with anti-Black racism as an additional stressor. This is especially true for Black people who live with mental illness.
“In Ontario, psychiatrized mad black people have a higher tendency to be committed against their will. They’re arrested and incarcerated at higher rates. They’re either over service or under service and for many they’re invisible until they are murdered.”— Idil Abdillahi
This elevated risk holds true for Black people facing mental health challenges in Waterloo Region. On July 5, 2020, 15 Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) officers descended on Abidisalam Omer, a Black Somali man with a documented history of mental illness. Security footage of the arrest shows multiple officers with guns drawn surrounding Omer who sat in his parked car. Suspecting that he had a gun, they broke his car window, dragged him out, and held him down while one officer punched him repeatedly. He was also tased, and left in an ambulance. No gun was found.
Earlier that month, Waterloo Regional Police Chief Bryan Larkin was featured in an episode of TrueNorth TV, the media apparatus for Waterloo-based tech incubator Communitech. This was driven by the global Black Lives Matter movement — which included the region’s historic march through Kitchener’s downtown — and the crisis of police legitimacy that followed in its wake.
Larkin took great care in the interview to expound the merits of the regional police Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Unit. Introduced in 2017 with a strategic plan for its implementation from 2019-2022, Larkin said he believed that the EDI unit would help reform policing and serve the purpose of “humanizing our profession and humanizing our badge.”
That strategic plan had officers undergo anti-Black racism and anti-racism training that consists of online modules, before moving into an in-class discussion. It represents the more substantive piece of its EDI strategic plan that also includes an HR initiative to ensure a diverse workforce and leadership.
“We welcome that dialogue in those conversations because I think in the end, people see that we’re trying to make a difference,” said Eric Boynton, sergeant in the EDI Unit. “Although it’s a marathon, and we’re making steps in the right direction.”
However there is little evidence that this type of training would have any tangible results. In an abstract of a 2019 meta-analysis of 492 studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology it states that “implicit measures can be changed, but effects are often relatively weak.”
“Our findings suggest that changes in implicit measures are possible, but those changes do not necessarily translate into changes in explicit measures or behaviour,” the paper’s authors wrote. Or in other words, while there is evidence that this type of training could briefly diminish a police officer’s underlying biases, there is no significant evidence that it could translate into long term changes to their behaviour or attitudes.
We asked regional police if an officer could fail the training in any way, and what the recourse would be.
“If a member of that service wasn’t quite grasping what was going on, most certainly, it would be brought in for remedial training, and we have HR processes to deal with those who aren’t adequately grasping the concepts being given to them,” Sgt. Boynton said.
When pressed if an officer could fail the training and be unqualified to work in Black neighbourhoods, Public Information Officer Andre Johnson stepped in. He explained that if there were any concerns about members’ conduct, that they had policies and procedures in place.
“We do have our professional standards unit that will look into it, and if there’s any concerns in the community about police officers conduct that can be directed to the [Office of the Independent Police Review Director] or complaints can be made with our service as well, so that’s how we would handle that,” Cst. Johnson said.
In the months following Omer’s arrest, two investigations into the Waterloo police officers use of force in his violent arrest resulted in a finding that the force used was “reasonable, appropriate and lawful.”
It should not come as a surprise that this force was used; the Ontario Human Rights Commission highlights how stereotypes about Black people lead police to use more force in interactions with them. Regional police held a meeting with the local Somali community, who were traumatized by Omer’s arrest. Chief Larkin referred to Omer by his name often during these discussions. Yet, when the results of the investigations were presented earlier this year, Omer became “the individual” — nameless and stripped of his humanity.
The language of care camouflages the systems of containment that pathologize, criminalize, incarcerate, and otherwise harm Black people in Ontario. Tools of confinement include community treatment orders, the overuse and weaponizing of the Mental Health Act in Ontario, the over-hospitalization of Black people against their will, the hyper and under diagnosis of our conditions as Black people, coupled with the overuse of chemical and physical restraints, and finally, the mental health service deserts in which Black people are confined.— Idil Abdillahi
Absence of support in manufactured service deserts is violent
Abdillahi uses the term “service deserts” to refer to the “isolated and inaccessible communities outside of [downtown cores], which function as sites that reproduce social, emotional, economic, spatial and visible isolation.”
In Waterloo Region, these service deserts exist in the pockets of neighbourhoods where more low-income, Black, and immigrant communities live. These are the same communities that were hit hard by both the first and second waves of COVID-19. Laura Mae Lindo, MPP for Kitchener Centre, said that when police suddenly pull out of neighbourhoods — like they did in Victoria Hills where Omer lives — without ensuring there is something else to fill the vacuum they have created, the community feels the brunt of this burden.
Victoria Hills resident Omar Said, once a long-time friend of Abdisalam Omer, said police don’t respond to neighbourhood calls about Omer anymore. “And when they do respond, they often look the other way.”
Said told insideWaterloo that his relationship with Omer fractured over an argument. In fact, although he knows that the police mistreated Omer last year, Said had to call the police to help him deal with Omer’s agitated behaviours; symptoms of his mental health illness. “[Abdisalam’s] approach is commanding, sometimes it gets into your head,” he said.
“What I’m worried about,” Lindo said, “is that the community will start to feel intense guilt and shame that they weren’t able to do more. It’s not their place to do that. They’ve done everything that they can. They’re asking and pleading for help, and they also deserve to feel safe.
“The fact that they don’t feel safe isn’t because there’s something wrong with Mr Omer, it’s because the whole system has let him and the community down.”
Larkin promised the Somali community that the WRPS would work closely with correctional services and other systems to ensure Omer would get the support he needs. Yet, Said could not confidently say that he saw those supports materialize.
“No, they never support him. I haven’t seen it,” Said told us. “I don’t know where he sleeps, I don’t know what happens.” WRPS did not return insideWaterloo’s request for comment on what kinds of support they were able to facilitate for Omer.
Mental health struggles, or madness, is marked by disposability, and psychiatrized mad Black people are particularly vulnerable to death across a range of contexts that places [them] in extremely vulnerable circumstances. Often psychiatrized mad Black people are evicted from Black communities … their outsider status is fueled both by their condition, the response to their condition, and their Blackness.— Idil Abdillahi
Three other community members expressed similar frustrations about Omer’s increase in agitated, aggressive behavior since his arrest. “The police aren’t responding to calls about him anymore,” Said told us, “and when they do respond, they often look the other way.”
By failing to ensure that culturally appropriate mental health supports were available for Omer while simultaneously ignoring calls concerning Omer’s behaviours, the WRPS (whether intentionally or not) effectively isolated Omer from his own community. Laura Mae Lindo — who is also the NDP critic for anti-racism, colleges and universities — said this approach is consistent with how their system operates.
“From the minute they decided,” Lindo said, “that they needed subject matter experts to review Omer’s arrest, and those subject matter experts were police because it’s only about use of force, they stopped caring about Mr. Omer.
“And as soon as you stop caring about Mr. Omer, you’re not trying to make sure that mental health practitioners are providing him with the care that he needs. You’re not making sure that you’re dealing with the root causes of whatever he’s dealing with, and you’re leaving the community in a horrid position where the lack of care for Mr. Omer is becoming dangerous in and of itself.”
Larkin has acknowledged in the past that officers should not be the ones responding to mental health calls. However, that hasn’t resulted in any significant changes to how the force approaches these situations. The EDI unit serves to present a friendly and progressive face to the WRPS, but fails to acknowledge the intersection of race and access to mental health supports.
Looking over past incidents and data, Black residents were still found to be overrepresented in officers’ intelligence notes; as well as overrepresented in the number of use of force incidents. The stats around intelligence notes follows the similar pattern of carding years ago, which WRPS have stated they would have academics analyze the data as to why. Meanwhile, WRPS have defended themselves around use-of-force by arguing that they only began collecting this data recently, but noted that their second quarter report showed a decline in incidents.
The Waterloo Region Record reported that since 2007, Waterloo Region police officers have shot seven people. Trevor Graham (26) and Beau Baker (20) were fatally shot. Both had documented mental health challenges. Most recently, an unnamed Black youth struggling with mental health issues was shot by Waterloo police.
Following a rash of violent incidents in the US and Canada last year, the federal government began funding pilot programs for body worn cameras, despite lack of consistent evidence showing that they reduce police brutality. When the pandemic forced the Region of Waterloo to reduce their budgets for the 2021, WRPS still fought for a $8 million increase before settling for $5 million, only to later find savings amounting to $3 million. For the upcoming year, regional police are proposing a $13-$24 million increase in their draft budget.
“There is no other area that I can think of where we would give money to an organisation who does not have expertise to do work in that particular area,” Lindo said. “So, we have local police officers, including Chief Larkin, who say ‘we don’t want to respond to these calls, we are forced to because somebody calls 9/11 and there’s no other option.’”
Larkin recently announced that the WRPS was looking into adopting a new triage system for 911 calls, reiterating a talking point used in 2020 during meetings with the Somali community following Omer’s arrest last year.
He also said he will advocate for legislative change under the Mental Health Act to “allow other services — like paramedics — to apprehend someone experiencing a mental health or addictions related crisis.” WRPS did not return insideWaterloo’s request for details regarding how and when the triage system will be implemented.
The African, Caribbean, Black Network and ReAllocateWR are local groups who advocate for culturally responsive mental health supports to replace police. In response to the police shooting of a young man in distress in Kitchener, ReAllocateWR issued a statement calling for “Waterloo Region Council to immediately fulfill its commitment of $250,000 to facilitate community conversations and subsequent action plan for a police-free community safety plan.”
Solutions Journalism Reporting bursaries are supported by Journalists for Human Rights and the Solutions Journalism Network and made possible by funding from the McConnell Foundation.