Union: Cops not trained to deal with mentally-ill

Deodath Gopie was chopped to death by a male relative at his Grant Trace Extension, Freeport, home on Sunday. - Lincoln Holder
Deodath Gopie was chopped to death by a male relative at his Grant Trace Extension, Freeport, home on Sunday. - Lincoln Holder

Rishard Khan

While relatives and the public may be pointing fingers at the police for what they believe is its failure to treat with a mentally-ill Freeport man days before he brutally murdered a relative, T&T Police Service Social and Welfare Association (TTPSSWA) head Gideon Dickson is highlighting that officers are not trained to deal with such situations.

"Our training isn't and hasn't been expanded to deal with the mentally-ill at this point in time. That is the straight and direct answer.

"We often have to engage other authorities to act and we provide some sort of support to those persons."

On Sunday, Deodath Gopie, 58, was murdered in his sleep by a mentally-ill suspect who was a former patient of St Ann's.

Gopie's sister-in-law, Lisa Ramlal, told Newsday that the police failed to arrest or take the suspect for treatment last Thursday after he went on a rampage, attacking Gopie and his wife.

A senior police official told Newsday that, on Thursday, an ambulance went to the home to pick up the mentally-ill person.

Officers assisted, and he willingly went into the ambulance to be taken away, however, he refused when the attendants attempted to bind his hands.

The official claimed attendants then decided that if the relative did not want to go with them, he would have to sign a waiver document, which he did. The official said the attendant refused to take the relative after the waiver was signed.

The senior police official claimed the suspect was not violent at that time and the officers could not force him to go into the ambulance.

Asked if it was in keeping with police protocols for a mentaly-ill person's wishes to be respected given the circumstances, the official said that was a question for the ambulance service to answer.

On Monday, Dickson said officers could only refer to their use-of-force policy in those situations.

However, he noted, the policy was designed for use against people who were of "normal or level mind and sound judgment."

He said, if the officers had to deal with a mentally-ill person, they would ask for help from family members, officials from the district's psychiatric attendants service or emergency health services.

"The police don't do the moving at all. The police presence is to ensure that there is no breach to the peace and no one is harmed or injured in the process."

While officers may not be trained in handling these situations, Dickson was doubtful how much of a difference it would make in their response to incidents.

He said it would be difficult for officers to reason with the mentally-ill person and might need to resort to using non-lethal force to subdue them if they became a threat.

"You'd hear people speaking as to the humanitarian aspect – you know the man (is mentally ill), the police wicked – it's damned if you do, damned if you don't (for the police)."

In April 2018, police shot and killed mentally-ill Colin Roopchand, 26, in La Romain after he attacked his mother and allegedly threatened them with a knife.

In July 2018, police shot and killed mentally-ill Kevin Lewis, 29 in St Ann's after he allegedly attacked a group of officers from the Port of Spain Division with a cutlass.

A few months later, in December, police also shot and killed mentally-ill Roger Nagessar who was wielding a cutlass in Friendship Village.

Continuing to respond to criticisms that the police fell short in preventing Gopie's death, Dickson said the blame also lay with the family. He said they were responsible for the suspect's timely medication and for providing an environment that would not trigger such violent episodes.

According to Ramlal, there was a history of physical, mental and substance abuse in the Gopie household.

Psychiatrist and former Independent Senator, Dr Varma Deyalsingh, told Newsday those were the factors which stacked the deck against the suspect. He believes the alleged toxicity in the household was likely the trigger of the mentally-ill relative's violent outbursts.

He said, apart from calling the police when the suspect had violent episodes, there were other options that could have been explored to treat with the relative.

Deyalsingh said if the person was not taking his medication as the family said, they could have visited the clinic and mental-health officers could have brought the patient in (against his will) and provided treatment.

He said the last option would have been visiting the chief of staff at the St Ann's hospital, where the patient previously received treatment, for an apprehension order for the police to forcibly remove him from the home.

Deyalsingh noted that even if those options were explored, it would amount to naught if the patient returned to the same toxic environment at home.

He also suggested that mental-health officers should accompany police officers who were responding to calls against known mentally-ill patients to help subdue them with medication.

He said, while emergency health services often accompanied police on such calls, they were not properly trained do deal with the mentally ill.


MoH: At-risk mentally ill people can be taken to hospital

The Ministry of Health's website says there are health protocols in place to provide urgent care for mentally-ill people who may be at risk of harming themselves or others.

If a person may be at risk of harming themselves – for example by suicide attempt – or harming someone else through erratic, violent or bizarre behaviour, they can be taken to the nearest emergency department at a general hospital where they will be assessed and treated.

Where necessary, patients may be admitted for further assessment, care and management.

In extreme cases where it is not possible to bring someone to the hospital, two psychiatric doctors must certify that the person has a mental illness and requires urgent treatment.

An apprehension order will be issued and mental health officers will apprehend the person for admission to a health facility.

"Please note that patients who are involuntarily admitted are managed at the facility until health-care professionals determine that they can safely return to their homes."


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