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Malta’s Police Force Has A Serious Mental Health Training Issue – And Something Needs To Be Done About It

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Pictured above: Ronnie Ghiller, left, and Bastjan Borg, right, both dead following police interventions. 

When Ronnie Ghiller started throwing things at people from the roof of his Żabbar home on Friday the 8th of May, his family didn’t realise that he would be dead within hours. They needed help – he had been acting paranoid all week and they didn’t know how to handle him.

A large group of Rapid Intervention Unit officers finally showed up with a doctor. They stunned and sedated him; as he was trolleyed off into an ambulance, his family watched him “change colours”.

13 years earlier, in May as well, Bastjan Borg’s sister kept calling the Qormi police station for help – Bastjan was acting erratically again and had gotten into a commotion with some people in the pjazza. The police told her there wasn’t much they could do, so she went to sleep.

At around 1.30am, she was woken by a phone call and informed that police had shot her brother five times, killing him.

Calling the police for help only for the person to be shot and killed sounds like something straight out of the USA – not Malta.

However, the issue of police officers not knowing how to handle people with mental issues is a global one. In the first 11 months of 2019, 142 of the 752 people shot by police in America had a mental illness, according to the Washington Post – and there’s a reason for that.

Whenever there’s a commotion, police officers are often the first responders.

Whenever a person begins to act unusually in public, police are the first to be called – and the same holds for Malta.

The thing is, police are trained in identifying dangers, and restraining them by force if necessary. And once the police are called to a scene and deem someone to be dangerous or violent, things can escalate beyond breaking point really quickly, with fatal results.

Police are being thrown into situations they are neither trained for nor equipped with the correct tools to de-escalate situations.

“If a person living with a mental illness becomes aggressive or violent, some suggestions include: trying to remain calm and speaking in a calm, clear and slow voice. Giving the person some physical space. And avoiding a confrontation – sometimes leaving the house to wait for everyone to calm down is more productive,” one Australian health website advises.

Approaching someone having a mental breakdown in the correct way can make all the difference. That’s why police body camera footage can be so vital to truly determine when a situation escalates and ends fatally.

However, Maltese officers do not carry body cameras.

And while they do have stun guns such as tasers nowadays, they didn’t when Bastjan Borg had his mental breakdown – and, combined with other factors, it did little good in the case of Ronnie Ghiller.

Malta’s police force used to have ongoing lessons, with specific personnel who taught officers how to deal with schizophrenic people, for example. However, these lessons have been stopped for a while, one police officer told Lovin Malta.

Indeed, the officer spoke of the tough situation first responders are finding themselves in when they are faced with someone having a mental breakdown and acting violently.

“There are no strict regulations or standard procedures in place, and the police are stuck in the middle,” the officer told Lovin Malta. 

He spoke of situations where officers needed to think on their feet when encountering dangerous situations they weren’t equipped or trained for.

“Before we had tasers, there was one incident where we had to wrap a person in a bedsheet just to restrain him without shooting him. We didn’t have pepper sprays or any apparatus,” he said.

When it comes to medical doctors assisting officers in restraining people, he says oftentimes doctors stay back, preferring not to get involved. And in light of Ronnie Ghiller’s death after a doctor got involved and sedated him, it’s no wonder.

When it comes to dealing with people who are acting suicidal, the situation is even worse.

“When we find someone committing suicide – maybe their family reported them missing and we localised their phone or we come across them in certain hotspots – we are forced to first take them to a polyclinic… and if they don’t give a certificate there, we can’t take them to Mt Carmel,” he explains.

He recounts a particular case where a youth was acting suicidal, but police were unable to take him to Mt Carmel. Police dropped him off home, only to return later that evening when the youth jumped from his balcony.

Bystanders and police may be harmed by someone no longer in control of their thoughts and mental faculties – however, the individuals having the episode are the ones most at risk of harm during these times.

The hard truth is there is no simple solution to dealing with someone having a mental breakdown. However, there are a number of actions that can be done to help mitigate the chances of escalation.

1. Having a specially trained unit of professionals who know how to treat, connect with and calm people is essential.

This can be a trained unit within the police corps or a group at Mt Carmel/Mater Dei who are sent whenever police officers call – but these people need to be present at every mental health-related incident for the best chances of a positive outcome.

2. Police must be given a standard operational procedure to follow in these cases.

As with many other situations police deal with on a regular basis, there should be clear step-by-step guides that officers can and should follow in line with the latest international guidance and medical advice. Having a standardised and approved set of steps for officers to follow can reduce the chances of fatalities.

3. Officers must be given the appropriate equipment.

The obvious first step is equipping officers with body cameras. The public has a right to know what goes down in these confrontations, and whether officers are using the appropriate force in each situation.

Taser guns and pepper spray are also much preferable than guns. 13 years ago, when Bastjan was shot and killed, officers weren’t even equipped with stun guns and carried revolvers.

4. There needs to be ongoing training for officers.

Be it once a month or more, officers need to be constantly reminded of their duties and options when dealing with someone who is not fully in control of their actions for that brief moment. They must be trained to be able to recognise the signs of mental illness at the very least, and how to react appropriately to it.

One wrong move could end a life due to nothing more than a lack of training and understanding.

If the Ghiller family will ever feel safe enough to call the police for help, or whether Bastjan’s sister will ever be able to forgive police for killing her brother, we might never know. But what we do know is this – unless something is done to change the way our first responders react to mental health crises, we can expect more Maltese families to suffer.

What do you think of the current approach to mental health in Malta? Let us know in the comments below.

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