The recent death of a man in Żabbar after he was tasered by police and forcibly sedated by a doctor has triggered grief, anger and a call for answers from the man’s family and Maltese society at large.

Following a bizarre stand-off with police that lasted several hours, Ronnie Ghiller is claimed to have acted aggressively towards RIU officers and a health centre doctor. Police have confirmed that a stun gun was used to restrain him before Ghiller was injected with an undisclosed chemical, ostensibly to calm him. The victim was taken to Mater Dei and was pronounced dead shortly afterwards.

Reports, quoting statements given by the man’s family, suggest that Ghiller was experiencing intense anxiety as a result of the coronavirus crisis. His behaviour became increasingly erratic on the day of his death.

Members of his family allege that they attempted to alert the Żabbarpolice station numerous times preceding the incident. Police intervened after a dramatic escalation of the man’s symptoms. The family are now calling for a toxicology report to be conducted, as well as an investigation into the death and the use of force that led up to it.

This tragic event presents the nation with an important opportunity to pause and consider the need for preventative and early intervention strategies, especially when it comes to effectively addressing the challenges of mental health and its treatment.

Data from across the EU and in other parts of the world has highlighted that the use of force by police is disproportionately employed against those experiencing mental health issues. This becomes still more disturbing when we recognise that these are the very people for whom the risks are highest.

The case of Ronnie Ghiller urges lawmakers to promote public policies that support the nation’s mental health system. It is unacceptable that individuals with severe mental illness are left to deteriorate until their actions provoke a confrontational response.

It should therefore come as no surprise that people with untreated mental illness are overrepresented in violent encounters with law enforcement, since individuals with such illnesses are vastly overrepresented across the criminal justice system.

Ultimately, the response to this tragedy will be a litmus test for the incoming police commissioner. As Malta gears up to welcome yet another individual to take on this difficult role, formulating and implementing a coherent plan of action must be a priority.

There is a clear need to promote reliable tracking and reporting of all incidents involving the use of force by law enforcement, whether lethal or not.

The role of mental illness in police incidents also needs to be identified and reported in government data collection.

If it is true that the family’s alleged calls to the police station went unanswered until the situation had escalated inexorably, will the police commissioner be capable of giving a reason why? Did the police allow a doctor to sedate the individual after he had been incapacitated? What kind of psychosocial support was offered to Ghiller by officers or other personnel, who were called to the scene?

Such answers will go some way to explain how the police force intends to reorganise itself, to ensure that interactions with members of the public who are experiencing acute struggles with their mental health are opportunities for justice and healing, rather than a risk to life.

Until a deep-seated reform of public mental health policies and police intervention takes place, there may be more tragic outcomes like this.

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