The Tragedy of Don Dunphy’s Death and the Question of Mental Distress

We certainly can’t expect police officers to be psychologists or social workers. But we can expect them to recruit the services of trained experts in some situations

Article by Meghan McCabe

‘Tis a sad state of affairs when one tweet can serve as a catalyst to a person’s death, and an even sadder state to reduce a man’s life to the story of how he died. Yet here we are.

Don Dunphy was an injured worker who, by all accounts, felt hard done by. He was certainly not the only injured worker to voice complaints. On Good Friday, Dunphy tweeted comments in response to a tweet from MHA Sandy Collins. The premier’s office perceived one of Dunphy’s tweets as a threat to the premier and MHA Collins, the investigation led to a plainclothes RNC officer on the premier’s security detail visiting Dunphy at his home in Mitchell’s Brook on Easter Sunday.

Never mind the fact that perceived threat had nothing to do with Davis or Collins, but referred to two MHAs who had died. In his community, Dunphy was not seen to be a threat, and was accustomed to visits from the local RCMP as he had a license to grow medical marijuana, warranting check-ins. But during the officer’s visit, something went horribly wrong.

RCMP investigators say Dunphy aimed a loaded rifle at the officer, and when that happens, protocol is to shoot to kill. Which, incidentally, is what happened, with a litany of questions left to be answered, an RCMP investigation underway, and calls for a judicial inquiry.

The ensuing comments from everyone – including Premier Paul Davis; RNC Chief Bill Janes; and the officer, in a letter he presumably intended only for colleagues at the RNC that was “leaked” (there’s an investigation into the leak) – deserve much scrutiny.

One aspect of the whole tragic affair is particularly concerning: the fatal police shooting of a man who threatened an officer with a gun has been turned into a mental health issue, though we don’t know Don Dunphy suffered from any mental health issues. But if the bottle’s open, we may as well drink.

One does not need to have mental health issues to react unpredictably; nor to snap under a certain level of stress. So we ought to be concerned that in the process of this story unfolding, RNC Chief Bill Janes said there’s no specific mental health protocol for such a situation.

It’s been almost 15 years since the two fatal police shootings of Norman Reid and Darryl Power, and a judicial inquiry that deemed both to be mentally ill individuals without adequate services. The inquiry led to recommendations and changes to mental health legislation. Here we are with another fatal police shooting and new questions about police response.

Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) are locally available, to better prepare anyone to appropriately respond to someone in mental distress, and to supportively intervene with someone who is suicidal. RNC officers and staff are receiving some of that training, though less than a fifth had as recently as March.

We certainly can’t expect police officers to be psychologists or social workers. But we can expect them to recruit the services of trained experts in some situations; we can expect them to be trained in recognizing warning signs; we can expect them to have protocols for life or death issues.

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