Don’t want cops to be ‘psychiatrists in blue’? Fund mental health services
WATCH: Body cameras and better mental health training — those are just a couple of the 84 recommendations from a report reviewing police use of force. Sean Mallen reports
TORONTO – Toronto’s mental health services need more money to keep police from becoming the “default mental health system” for people in psychiatric distress, according to one expert.
“It’s not just how the police respond,” Steve Lurie, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Toronto said in an interview Thursday. “It’s also the failure of the mental health system to act in a coordinated way and to be appropriately resourced.”
Retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci released his lengthy report into the use of force by the Toronto Police Service Thursday morning.
The million-dollar report was released days before the one-year anniversary of the incident that sparked the investigation: the police shooting death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on the Dundas Streetcar.
The report made 84 suggestions ranging from giving police Tasers and making them wear cameras to asking “vulnerable persons” to voluntarily share their health information with police.
The report also calls for increased funding to mental health initiatives and expanding the role of de-escalation units such as the Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, which Iacobucci’s recommended should be available to police 24 hours a day in every part of the city. Right now, they’re only available 17 hours a day in 14 of the city’s 17 police divisions.
“If reasonable steps can be taken to prevent even one unnecessary death, then those steps must be taken,” Iacobucci said Thursday. “It is clear that the police are part of the mental-health system. They have become the front-line mental-health workers.”
And that, Lurie said, is part of the problem.
Police bore the brunt of the criticism following Yatim’s death after several videos emerged showing the police fire nine shots at the teenager and shoot him with a Taser him before he died.
But as Lurie pointed out Thursday, the mental health system in Toronto just isn’t expansive enough to help the police effectively.
“The fact that he draws attention to the underfunding of the mental health system and the fact that the police can’t rely on the mental health system to respond to many people in psychiatric distress is very important,” Lurie said.
The Canadian Mental Health Association runs a safe beds program in Toronto – a program that provides housing for people experiencing a mental health crisis.
Iacobucci says it needs to be expanded.
Out of 31 different housing providers, Lurie said, there are about 5,000 beds available – and an 8,000-person waiting list.
Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair promised the report won’t “gather dust” and gave a blanket approval to all Iacobucci’s recommendations.
Among Iacobucci’s other recommendations is a suggestion the police “proactively and comprehensively educate officers” on mental-health resources and give preference to new hires who have experience with community service, mental health involvement and higher education.