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TORONTO – The jury at a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of three mentally ill people gunned down by Toronto police in separate but similar incidents was asked Tuesday to keep an open mind as they carry out their role.
Coroner’s counsel Michael Blain said the five members of the jury should remember that mental illness “is not the person,” and police officers should not be defined by their actions.
Relatives of all three people who were shot by police were present for the start of the inquest, listening on with grim expressions as Blain outlined the circumstances of each death for the jury.
Michael Eligon was 29 when he died in February of 2012 after fleeing from a Toronto hospital dressed in a hospital gown and armed with two pairs of scissors.
Twenty-five-year-old Reyal Jardine-Douglas died in August of 2010 after pulling a knife out of his bag and advancing on an officer on a public transit bus.
And 52-year-old Sylvia Klibingaitis called 911 herself in October of 2011 _ saying she was going to commit a crime _ before she confronted officers with a knife in her hand.
All were thought to be experiencing mental health issues when they approached officers with sharp objects.
The province’s police watchdog later cleared authorities of wrongdoing in all three cases, prompting calls for justice from the families of those killed.
Lawyer Peter Brauti, managing partner at Brauti Thorning Zibarras LLP, who is representing one of the officers involved in the cases, said he believes all evidence brought forward to date has shown police acted appropriately.
“The question is, do we give them different tools? For example, do we make sure they are all armed with Tasers? Do we give them training that will help deal with these situations better?” asked Brauti outside the coroner’s court.
“Officers deal with situations all the time that require them to draw their weapons and tragedies are going to happen. This won’t be a complete answer but let’s try and move in that direction and improve things.”
But John Weingust, a lawyer representing Jardine – Douglas’s family at the inquest, said his clients believe their son’s death was a “wrongful shooting.”
“These weren’t criminals, these were people suffering from emotional problems at the particular time…and all they had was either scissors or a knife,” he said outside court.
“It seems to me that in regard to emotionally disturbed people, a different procedure has to be adopted.”
Peter Rosenthal, who is representing Eligon’s family, said he was “cautiously optimistic” the inquest would change how police forces respond to officers who fire at mentally ill people in similar situations.
“My hope is that this inquest really underlines the fact that police officers should try de-escalation way before they use weapons,” he said.
“I hope the jury at the end of the day will insist that they do that by indicating that officers who fail to do that, in circumstances where it’s appropriate, should be subject to discipline.”
The inquest heard Tuesday afternoon from a witness who detailed the training Ontario police receive, particularly when it comes to use of force.
The inquest is expected to last eight weeks and will hear from more than 50 witnesses.
A jury may make recommendations at preventing similar deaths but is not tasked with finding fault or laying any blame.
© 2013 The Canadian Press