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De-escalating should be officers' top goal: expert

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When Winnipeg police begin a standoff, they should immediately have two goals: figure out what started it and explore non-violent options for ending it.

That's the view of veteran city psychologist Bruce Tefft, a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba and the former president of the Canadian Mental Health Association's Manitoba branch.

Tefft said he can't comment on the actions of police officers at an incident on Stella Avenue earlier this week -- which ended with shots being fired from the house and by police resulting in the death of 53-year-old Andrew Baryluk during a 17-hour standoff -- but he said the first thing officers should do is de-escalate the incident.

"When people are frightened, if you present them with a non-violent alternative, they often take it," he said on Friday.

"They don't want to die. They don't want to be shot.

"Police should know the individual is scared and frightened, and when they are scared and frightened they take action and of course they feel threatened. Anything that can reduce that would be helpful.

"Finding ways to de-escalate the situation is important."

That's why Tefft wonders why police would have cut electrical power to the house on Stella Avenue 12 hours into the standoff.

"I don't know if it was good or bad to cut the power, but if cutting the power caused it to frighten the person even more, that wouldn't help," he said.

"If I were in that person's shoes and the police cut the power to the house I would perceive it as an escalation."

Tefft said police also need to find out what sparked the incident while it was ongoing.

"It's hard to know, but the main part is to get inside and understand the psychological mindset of the person involved and find ways of employing alternatives for a non-violent resolution," he said.

Tefft said he agrees with recommendations by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci that police should change hiring practices to insist would-be officers complete a mental-health first aid course before being able to apply to join the force.

As well, Iacobucci, who last month released 84 recommendations to the Toronto Police Service in a report titled Police Encounters with People in Crisis, recommended the force give preference to the hiring of individuals who have done significant community service, including those who did community service with people in crisis.

Iacobucci also called on Toronto police to set up a standing interdisciplinary committee, which both police and mental-health experts would sit on, to do things such as set up a protocol allowing police to access an individual's mental-health information to better help the person in crisis.

The retired justice said the goal of his report on police use of force is to save lives.

"No death of the subject, no death of the officer involved, or of any member of the public," Iacobucci told a news conference.

The report also recommended more use of conducted-energy weapons, also called Tasers, putting body-worn cameras on the officers issued Tasers, making mandatory annual visits with a psychologist by officers, and changing its use-of-force model so officers view "indicators of mental-health crises as symptoms rather than threats to officer safety."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 0

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