MONTREAL -- Next year, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) will launch a mandatory training program to help its police officers intervene more effectively when dealing with a person suffering from psychological distress.

The SQ hopes the training will reduce the number of interventions ending in a fatal outcome.

“The company want to change the police intervention model,” said Sergeant Dominique Éthier, a police force employment monitor who's involved in implementing the program. “Our approach is to prevent confrontation and then to ensure safety.”

The training will be mandatory for all police officers and new recruits.

Officers will be required to complete a four-hour online training course outlining stigma surrounding mental health and tools for building trusting relationships during police work. They will then have to complete two-day workshops, during which time they will be placed in intervention scenarios.

“We want to make sure that everything will be done to avoid a fatal outcome,” said Éthier. “When a person is shot, it’s a tragedy for their family and the police. Everyone suffers from it.”

The measure is coming after a rise in deaths occurring during police interventions. According to the Quebec coroner’s office, the number has risen to 25 since 2016.

In 2014, Coroner Luc Malouin recommended a “review of training for police officers so that they receive good training in mental health and on how to intervene with people with mental health problems.”

While the number of reported crimes is on the decline, the SQ intervened in 21,770 mental health-related cases in 2020.

“The number of calls that police stations receive for situations involving people with mental disorders is constantly increasing,” said Éthier. “Society is changing. Our knowledge on this subject has also changed. We need to look at what the research has shown and look at the gap in order to improve our training and interventions.”


Jean-François Plouffe, from the Action-Autonomie group, says it’s essential that police training reflect the current needs of society.

“The road is long, because we have decades of violence, brutality, and police intransigence behind us. Training won't change that in the blink of an eye,” he said. “The traditional view of the police of hunting down criminals is still very ingrained.”

He hopes the training will change how officers approach their work and to equip them to aid people in mental distress, rather than berating and arresting them.

The shooting of Jean-René Olivier in Repentigny during the summer rekindled demands on police to better handle mental health crisis calls.

The 37-year-old man was shot dead by municipal police outside his family’s home after family members asked the police for help.

“I told the police that my son was holding a knife. I wanted them to take him to the hospital,” said Olivier’s mother, Marie-Mireille Bence.

“I specified (that I wanted them to take him to) a mental hospital,” she said. “But the police arrived and killed my son.”

She believes that if an officer with mental health training had been present, or if a social worker had accompanied the police, things would have turned out differently.

“They acted like they knew what they were going to do. It didn't take long,” she said. “A few police officers in front of a small man armed with a steak knife. They did not take the time to intervene as they should have.”

Éthier said that one of the essential aspects of the new training will be to give the police a new notion of time.

“The problem is, the police are looking at a situation too quickly. We have to change the way we use time. The more time you take, the more you allow people to calm down.”

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Dec. 4, 2021