Officer Involved Shootings, Mental Health and the Charter


Mental health and criminal law are again in question after a police-involved shooting in Winnipeg on February 23. As reported in a CBC article, the victim of the shooting was identified as Machuar Madut, a 43 year old father, and Sudanese refugee. A cousin of Madut confirmed that he was indeed experiencing mental health issues at the time of the shooting.

At this point, the IIU of Manitoba (Independent Investigations Unit) is in the process of reviewing the incident, but there is already outcry in Winnipeg’s Sudanese community who are calling for justice for Madut, the implementation of intervention and response mechanisms which are sensitive to refugees and cultural minorities, amongst other things.

Under s 25 of the Criminal Code, police are allowed to use reasonable force when enforcing the law depending upon the circumstance. However, the police are not entitled to use any force beyond what is necessary in the situation. While it is undetermined whether or not the police used appropriate levels of force in this case, I agree with the advocates of Winnipeg’s Sudanese community who assert (generally) that better mechanisms are needed to deal not only with refugees and cultural minorities who are unfamiliar with Canadian law, but I also believe better mechanisms are needed to help de-escalate volatile situations involving individuals suffering from mental illness and the police.

It is believed that there are 25 fatal officer involved shootings annually in Canada- many of which do not result in criminal charges against the officer. Although I don’t think that all officers should be charged (because there are often many valid reasons why an officer chooses to use their firearm in a lethal manner), I believe that there needs to be a better balance of officers enforcing the law and the s 15 equality rights guaranteed to all Canadians under the Charter. 

In a 2010 report by the Mental Health and Law Advisory Committee, it recommended a framework for police learning that focuses on de-stigmatizing mental illness and make ethical choices when dealing with individuals affected by mental illness. The report recommended that police forces teach their personnel how to handle situations using their Learning Spectrum programme which increases officer understanding of the causes and results of mental illness, the relationship between culture, race, ethnicity and mental illness, and help officers decide how to communicate and problem-solve in situations involving people with mental illness. 

I feel that if all police services are trained on the topics outlined in the very detailed report (which can be accessed by clicking here), perhaps there will be a future in which an individual’s mental illness will be handled effectively and fairly by officers of the law, and we will be closer to the equality contemplated under s 15.