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How can policing change for the better in Toronto?

When local activism around police reform and defunding intensified following the death of George Floyd in the U.S. and Regis Korchinski-Paquet here in Toronto, the protests had a particular focus on how law enforcement responds to individuals in mental health crises. This week, we had our first look at how policing can change for the better. At the Mayor’s Executive Committee meeting this week, City staff gave us a first look at a detailed proposal to redirect mental health crisis response outside of traditional policing. The recommendations call for a pilot project to hone this new approach over the next three years. You will get an opportunity to weigh in on the plan before the pilot is finalized, and the next step is a city-wide consultation. Let me give you a quick rundown on the details of the Community Crisis Support Service Pilot.

I am not going to walk through all of the recommendations since the main points are probably all that matters at this point. The pilot will be based within Scarborough, Etobicoke and the downtown core, three areas of the city with the highest incidence of calls regarding persons in crisis. A group of expert agencies under contract with the City will deliver care, deploying mental health professionals, not police, as first responders. So, if you call 911 for a person or loved one in crisis, and there is no immediate risk like a weapon, you will be given the option to send in a Community Crisis Support Service unit rather than a uniformed police officer. If you are uneasy about calling 911 - and many BIPOC and their families are for legitimate reasons - you can choose to contact the crisis support service directly by calling 211. Torontonians’ concern over police responding to these types of calls dates back many years - at least as far back as the shooting of Edmond Wai-Hong Yu by police on a streetcar in 1997. The following recommendation was made during an inquest into that incident:

The recommendation was based on the rationale that such training was an “integral part” of police training and was given to ensure Crisis Resolution training should never be discontinued. I can confirm that this training is still happening. In 2017 while sitting on the Toronto Police Service Board, I took Crisis Resolution training, which now extends to three days and includes a BIPOC citizen-led anti-Black racism unit. The program utilizes case examples and experiential life re-enactments to teach and evaluate de-escalation. I must also report the training culminates on the third day with a couple of hours of target practice on the shooting range. For this new pilot, City staff worked with various mental health support agencies to develop a new way to support individuals and their families for wellness checks and certain types of mental health crisis. The proposal was approved by the Executive Committee and will now go for final approval at Council next week.

During Wednesday's Executive Committee’s meeting, many public deputants made the same point: the pilot will only make people in crisis safer if it’s fully embraced. A person in crisis doesn’t always state, ‘I’m having a mental health crisis’, so the need for mental health support presents itself in domestic violence, drug abuse, addiction crisis and homelessness nuisance calls. A police officer is probably not who 911 should send in these cases, but the whole emergency dispatch is managed by the Toronto Police Service. In the U.S. and throughout the UK, 911 services are centrally managed by the municipality rather than directly by police. Study after study shows the move does nothing to worsen safety, instead it makes emergency response more responsive and adaptable, resulting in better methods and proven results. Toronto should be looking at this right now and consider moving the management of 911 over to the City. I worry three years is a long time for a city anxiously awaiting change. Even if this pilot is successful, and we see a revolution in crisis response, there will need to be trust between the new support units and the police service, and easy collaboration between the two. We can look at Eugene, Oregon, where a method of response called CAHOOTS has functioned well for three decades.

CAHOOTS stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets. Eugene is a city of only 375,000 but it was rapidly urbanized due to population growth all along the west coast since the 2008 global financial crisis. Eugene ranks among the highest in both homelessness and drug abuse in America on a per capita basis, conditions common to Toronto. In 2019, 24,000 calls were made to Eugene's 911 system and direct requests to CAHOOTS. Of those calls, police were summoned for back up in only 311 cases. A third party study indicated the city saved between $8.5 and $12 million in annual policing costs. These are dollars that are invested into supportive housing as well as drug prevention and harm reduction programs and other community benefits. Thorough public consultation on the Community Crisis Support Service pilot is the next step. It will be crucial to hear from people who have lived through a mental health crisis that involved calling 911, and involved police response. It will be important for all of us to accept at the outset that these experiences are very different for members of the BIPOC community. As the public has urged, we need to make special efforts to hear directly from the BIPOC community, and in particular the Indigenous community, from families with lived experience of personal crisis. Consultations should include directly reaching out to these unique communities rather than just posting a meeting notice or asking the agencies we’ve already heard from to send their clients. If you want to take part in the consultation and refinement of this new concept for Community Crisis Support Service in Toronto, I would love to chat with you. My team and I will be happy to ensure you are notified of every opportunity to be involved. It takes courage to come forward, and I will support you in any way that I can.


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