It’s interesting that in the same week a lengthy standoff ended in Bay Bulls and Leo Crockwell was appearing in court, a national report was released about the importance of keeping mentally ill people out of prison.
Crockwell is accused of threatening his sister and firing a gun at police officers who surrounded his house during the standoff.
His family and friends describe him as a wonderful man and a good neighbour, who could be troubled from time to time.
“Things happen that make people go off the rails,” one of his supporters philosophically noted.
We don’t know what Leo Crockwell’s state of mind was during the standoff, nor what precipitated it.
And, frankly, that’s none of our business.
What we should be concerned about, however, is that his case is yet another very public example of how, clearly, not everyone who needs medical attention, psychological support or psychiatric intervention is getting it.
Such cases are exacerbated when the people don’t want help or even think they need any.
Thankfully, in Crockwell’s case, the standoff ended without anyone being injured or killed. It could have gone — as we know from our own history of standoffs involving troubled men in this province — tragically wrong.
And whatever you think of how the RCMP handled the standoff, the police officers were clearly trying to do everything they could to reach a peaceful end to the situation.
But some of the tactics employed to try to get Crockwell to emerge from his house raise troubling questions.
And they are questions that aren’t easily answered.
Should someone who is clearly in distress, agitated or acting irrationally be isolated inside a building and then bombarded with noise, tear gas and water?
Naturally, if someone poses a threat to the community — as an angry, armed person might — the public has to be protected. This goes without saying.
You cannot, as some onlookers have suggested, simply leave the person to their own devices and let them “cool down.”
If a threat was uttered, that is a crime. If weapons are involved, then evacuating people from the immediate area and setting up a secure perimeter makes sense.
But if you have reason to believe that the person at the heart of such an incident is depressed or anxious or otherwise unwell, is constant noise, sleep deprivation, the stripping away of heat and light and subjecting the person to a torrent of water the best intervention we can provide?
I’m not convinced it is, but it’s easy to say that when you aren’t the person in charge of such a sensitive, potentially violent, incident.
Leo Crockwell began the standoff as a man who would likely be charged with uttering threats. He ended it as an alleged attempted murderer charged with 16 offences.
In between, something certainly went off the rails.
And all too often in Canada, people who are mentally ill wind up charged with criminal offences before they receive the sort of intervention they need.
As the Report of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security notes, “as far as possible, people suffering from mental disorders and addictions should not end up in detention because of these problems, or the lack of community resources. Correctional institutions should not be serving as hospitals by default.”
And yet correctional institutions are frequently the first places mentally ill people get access to the help they need, and care behind bars is expensive.
The report notes “the need for rapid intervention, well before those concerned come into conflict with the law,” and says, “we also have to ensure that community mental health services are both available and effective.”
There’s a dollars-and-cents reason why this makes good sense.
“It would be more cost-effective, in the long term,” the report states, “to invest in the risk and protection factors that affect the mental health of all Canadians, rather than continually increase funding for mental health services provided in correctional institutions.”
In short, it’s cheaper to treat mental illness in hospitals than in prison — a place that, for many reasons, is not necessarily conducive to good mental health.
And that’s not to mention how much it must have cost the police to have a presence in Bay Bulls 24/7 — bringing in special teams from the Maritimes, using specialized technology and paying plenty of overtime. It cost the local economy as well, with some businesses closed for a week.
Twelve years ago, Leo Crockwell spent 140 days in the Waterford Hospital because of the erratic behaviour he was displaying at work.
What could have been done between 1998 and now that might have prevented him from being holed up in a house for nearly eight days, with sharpshooters’ rifles trained on him?
It will be interesting to learn the results of the independent police investigation being conducted into how the RCMP handled the standoff.
I fear the larger problem — how to stop people who are mentally troubled from falling through the cracks and ending up in jail instead of receiving medical treatment — will be far harder to resolve.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.