Almost a week after 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death at a west-end apartment building, the co-chair of the Toronto Police Services Board’s anti-racism advisory panel says she has been looking for patterns and has found a major one in desperate need of changing.
“Police are not equipped to address mental health issues in the community effectively, and I don’t think we should continue going down the same road in terms of the ways in which they respond,” Dr. Notisha Massaquoi told Global News in an interview.
“I cannot believe that the response that Regis’s family got was a protocolled response and that protocol was followed, and if that was the protocol then we have some serious questioning to do in terms of what should we expect those kinds of situations.”
It is that exact response protocol that is currently the subject of a probe by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the province’s independent police watchdog — a probe that multiple stakeholders are calling for to be quick, fulsome and transparent.
Korchinski-Paquet’s mother, Claudette Beals-Clayton, said she called 911 as she had done in previous instances. Korchinski-Paquet was said to be in distress over a family conflict and also had an epileptic seizure.
After Korchinski-Paquet, her brother and Beals-Clayton met police in the hallway of their apartment building, Korchinski-Paquet went back into the unit and several police officers followed. A short time later, Korchinski-Paquet fell 24 storeys to the ground. Korchinski-Paquet’s brother and mother were in the hallway as police were inside the unit. The exact circumstances leading up to Korchinski-Paquet’s death haven’t been revealed by the SIU.
“I asked the police yesterday if they could take my daughter to (the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) and my daughter ended up dead, so I don’t understand,” she told reporters on Thursday.
Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said on Friday that Toronto police received three calls to 911 from three different people. He said the calls indicated there was an assault and that weapons were present, and it was dispatched out as a priority one
He said there is much more he wants to discuss about the call but is restricted from doing so under provincial law, urging for people to await the investigation’s results. A lawyer for Korchinski-Paquet’s family said weapons weren’t present and that there wasn’t a dispute when officers arrived.
Massaquoi, who has a lengthy background in social work and working to provide health care to those in racialized communities, was appointed to her role in 2018 as part of a newly constituted advisory panel stemming from a coroner’s inquest jury recommendations made following the death of Andrew Loku. The panel’s mission was to help Toronto police navigate implementing the recommendations.
Loku, a 45-year-old father of five who had mental health issues, was fatally shot by Toronto police in 2015 shortly after officers were called to his apartment building with a report a man had been drinking and was angry.
Like Korchinski-Paquet, Loku was Black. The jury made 39 recommendations, including more than a dozen aimed at Toronto police dealing with anti-Black racism and responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis.
“For this to happen with the Regis case before we’ve even given that (final) report in July just gives you a sense of ‘here we are again with the same situation,’ and there will be a call for an inquest before we even finish wrapping up the Loku inquest recommendations,” Massaquoi said.
“What we have essentially is the Toronto Police Service’s inability to respond appropriately to mental health calls and that situation being elevated when they’re responding to situations where the family members are Black and the person in distress is Black.”
Massaquoi, who as a member of one of two advisory panels to the Toronto Police Services Board doesn’t sit on the board, said she wasn’t consulted about a statement issued by the board in response to the death of Korchinski-Paquet.
She said she found it “disheartening,” adding she believes there is an inability for police to address “deeply embedded” issues surrounding racism and mental health stigma in the system.
However, Massaquoi cited a big “win” as part of the panel’s work to date: the implementation of a policy surrounding the collection of race-based data.
Set to begin in 2020, officers will be required to record the race of those who they have interactions with. The beginning of data collection will apply to use-of-force incidents, but the plan is to expand it to when people are stopped, arrested and searched.
She said that data is crucial to help demonstrate potential issues of bias and racism and to address disparities experienced by Toronto’s racialized communities.
“Until we can actually look at that, we can’t do anything about it. It remains anecdotal and it remains me telling you my experience and hoping you’ll listen,” Massaquoi said.
“What I find is that numbers and hardcore facts are what make change happen along with my story.”
Massaquoi went on to highlight statistics released by the Ontario Human Rights Commission in a 2018 report.
It found that even though 8.8 per cent of Toronto residents are Black, SIU data showed “Black people were overrepresented in use-of-force cases (28.8 per cent), shootings (36 per cent), deadly encounters (61.5 per cent) and fatal shootings (70 per cent).”
Responding to emergency mental health situations
When it comes to the broader community, Semir Bulle, co-president of the University of Toronto Black Medical Students’ Association (BMSA), reflected on how the BMSA began in 2015 following an outcry after there was only one Black medical student at the time. There’s set to be a record-breaking 24 Black students in the class of 2024.
He said he and others with the BMSA have been working to increase the number of Black medical professionals to better represent the Black community and bring their experiences to the medical profession.
“There is a mental health crisis in the Black community, and it’s just ridiculous we let it get this bad,” he said, calling the current health-care supports more reactive than proactive.
“Twenty-three per cent of the time a Black person is brought to a mental health service is by the police — like the first interaction is with the police. If they’re in crisis when they’re in first coming into interaction with the health-care services, how do you expect to adequately get them better?” Bulle said.
“Any solution we need to look for has been implemented in other countries … You have to give them dignity, that is the problem, and we don’t do this.”
Massaquoi said she has many questions in the wake of Korchinski-Paquet’s death.
“I think the most pressing (thing) right now is how do police respond to these calls? How do they show up in these situations? And where are the (mobile crisis intervention teams)? And where are the mental health crisis staff? Where are the mental health nurses? Where are the social workers that should be on these response units?” she asked.
For years, Toronto police have worked with area hospitals to pair mental health nurses with officers. One of those teams was not present at Korchinski-Paquet’s home on Wednesday.
Saunders was asked about that absence on Friday, and he said Priority 1 calls have a “high probability of violence” and said the teams don’t go in “real time.” He said police need to “restore calm, investigate and then proceed in accordance to law with what they need to do.”
“There is no way that I would put a nurse in the middle of a knife fight, and that is something that is not in any processes that I am aware of nor supportive of at this particular point in time,” Saunders said, adding that police need to consider the information given and the safety of all.
Massaquoi said we haven’t heard the full accounting of what happened, but she noted the reports that Korchinski-Paquet and her family met police in the hallway and the scene appeared to be secured based on the reports. She questioned why mental health workers weren’t involved in the conversation.
“Police officers are not mental health workers,” Massaquoi said.
“We’ve seen it too many times where instead of mental health services being the priority, policing is a priority, and the result has been the death of the individual who was in distress,” Massaquoi said.
Asante Haughton, a mental health advocate and a motivational speaker, said he has worked with medical professionals throughout his career and that they have received training on how to manage aggressive or violent situations.
“You are taught things like how do I get out of a grip or hold? If it does come to a situation where I’m a mental health worker and I have some folks with me, how do we position ourselves? What steps do I take?” he said.
“Let’s remember that the nurse is not going there on their own. They are part of a mobile crisis unit involving an officer or several officers.”
Haughton went on to propose looking at alternatives to sending police as the lead responders to mental health calls.
“I actually have a friend who has been thinking about this for a few years now. What if there was a 911 for mental health so you don’t need to call 911 for a mental health crisis?” he said.
“Maybe it’s 711 or something and then the dispatch and everyone connected to that service are experts in mental health, and those are the folks that show up to the door.”
Massaquoi echoed the comments made by Haughton.
“I do understand when one’s life is in danger … why police may be part of that call, but they can be part of the response team — not the first responders and the priority — and I think we’ve got we’ve got it backwards,” she said.
“I think I am with the advocates now, which is to divest from policing and to put more resources into community mental health support. I think a lot of families wouldn’t even be in the situation of having to call 911 if there were adequate mental health supports in our communities that they could access first.”
Mayor John Tory, who also sits on the Toronto Police Services Board, was asked about Korchinski-Paquet’s death during an unrelated news conference on Monday and issues surrounding the handling of mental health calls.
He said police respond to approximately 30,000 mental health calls annually and said more needs done in the area of mental health and sensitivity training, over and above what the service currently provides. Tory went on to say he supports initiatives such as increasing the number of mobile crisis intervention teams.
”Our treatment of mental health generally in this country and in this province has been way short of the standard we should expect in terms of the allocation of resources in the health-care system,” he said, adding investments in training and mental health resources up front can reduce the number of interactions.
Reallocating part of the $1-billion Toronto police budget
Massaquoi, Haughton and Bulle all agreed when it comes to funding mental health and preventive initiatives, officials should look at redirecting part of the existing Toronto police budget.
“We have not been investing sufficiently in mental health, and post-COVID, the levels of stress that people have been living under, the levels of poverty that are going to increase, we’re going to see a desperate need for mental health services that are community-based and that are also culturally and racially appropriate so that people can go to spaces where they know that their loved one would be safe once they engage with that system,” Massaquoi said.
“We have to have a discussion about the police funding … They always keep growing the police budget but never the social security budget,” Bulle said.
“We keep thinking mental health is just in a vacuum … No, it’s the conditions around the person that need to change for the mental health to be better.”
Tory was asked on Monday about the budget, and he said funding needs to continue to police, adding there was more money in 2020 for community policing — officers who have multi-year deployments to work in neighbourhoods. He also said guns and gangs initiatives need money, too.
“We need to make sure the city remains safe because that’s fundamental to a good quality of life and to a strong economy, among other things,” Tory said, while also talking about some suggestions for larger-scale divestment.
“This notion we’re going to defund the police — and I don’t know whether we’re not going to have police or whatever is not a credible option. I don’t think anybody can realistically put it forward.”
The need for active allyship, listening and believing
As for some of the actions being called for in response to protests and marches across North America in response to the deaths of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, Korchinski-Paquet and other Black community members, advocates said a prolonged, concerted effort is needed by many.
“We hope post-COVID, we really hope people understand that this isn’t something that isn’t passing. It doesn’t just go away passively,” Bulle said.
“We need people to be active in their allyship and in their work to try to dismantle the systems that built this country and really try to have an equitable nation.”
Haughton went on to say there are issues of trust in racialized communities when it comes to police that need to be understood.
“When we think of police officers, the slogan is to serve and protect. But individuals of colour, Black people, poor people, First Nations folks do not feel like they are being served and protected. They feel like they are being surveilled,” he said.
“If you have far more negative experiences with law enforcement than you do positive experiences, it is going to develop a state of anxiety and distrust in the folks who have had those negative experiences.”
Haughton added that as a society, many more people need to listen and believe stories of anti-Black racism and the associated mental health impacts.
“When we say racist things are happening, when we say we had a racist interaction with the person at the bank or our landlord or our teacher or our child’s baseball coach or what have you, believe us. Because why would we go out of our way to make up these stories? What would we gain from that?” he said.
“I think the reason why I am so angry … is not just because of what happened with George Floyd in the United States, it’s because it took that to happen on video in a way that could not be talked around, talked out of.
“We can’t move the goalposts. It is blatant and in our face. It took that for people to start believing us when we’ve been telling these stories for a very, very long time — years, decades, centuries.”