Most don't trust Toronto police around mental health issues, poll suggests

When asked if they trust Toronto Police to deescalate encounters with people who are mentally ill, only four per cent of Torontonians polled would strongly agree.

Are body cameras the solution? One mental health advocate thinks so

Are police doing everything they can to de-escalate situations involving people with mental health issues?

It's been a difficult few weeks for the Toronto Police.

One officer found guilty of attempted murder in the shooting death of Sammy Yatim. Four more charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly planting drugs on a suspect.

CBC News conducted the study by speaking with panellists from the Angus Reid Forum between Jan. 29-31 in the wake of those events. The results of that poll can be read here.

It suggests only 20 per cent of you "completely" trust the police, according to the poll.

When respondents were asked about police dealing with people in a mental health crisis, only four per cent say they strongly agree when asked if they trust Toronto Police to deal with people who are mentally ill. Fifty six per cent of people said they strongly or somewhat disagreed with the statement. 

And 53 per per cent disagreed with the statement that police do "everything they can to de-escalate encounters with people who are mentally ill."

Metro Morning spoke with Jennifer Chambers, the executive director of the Empowerment Council, which represents clients at CAMH, about what all that means for both the police and the city.

"The biggest need for police interacting with people in mental crisis, is not just training". Matt Galloway spoke with Jennifer Chambers, she is the executive director of the Empowerment Council, which represents clients at CAMH. 10:26

Are you surprised by the survey?

It's not surprising given the last week and the Forcillo trial and the very unusual action of the jury to convict on a murder-related charge of a police officer.

I'd say that there is some very good training happening at the Toronto Police Service. We did some excellent training for the Toronto Police Service about 14 years ago. They had us bring in people who could speak directly from the experience of having had a mental health crisis to police about what's helpful and what isn't.

They say you can forget your training but you can't unmeet a person. The best way of addressing any kind of social prejudice is to meet the actual people whom one has the prejudice. 

I'm not saying Toronto police are more prejudice than anyone else, but they are having frequent encounters with the people they call emotionally disturbed persons, about 23,000 a year.

Do police deserve more credit than what they are getting, then?

I do think they should get credit because people need to hear about what they are doing well as what they are doing badly if we want them to behave a certain way.

We have negotiating with the police for some time and have come to the agreement that we could give awards to police for deescalating an emotionally disturbed people. We want to be sure we are giving credit.

The point about training not being enough is also a good point. Training needs to be backed up by supervision.

We're hoping body cameras can provide that.

What is an example of training an officer can use?

We would tell them things like, speak one at a time, speak calmly. Give the person space, give the person choice, as much as possible. Recognize the vast majority of people with mental health issues are trauma survivors.

Even when people appear to be aggressive, that really is usually fear. Anything you can do to calm people's fear is going to calm the situation. If you escalate by immediately going into very aggressive tone of voice or actions, then your just going to frighten the person more and things are not going to go well.

There is a real concern whether people trust police to use those tactics. Is a culture change necessary?

One thing that's true of every quasi-military organization is a culture of machismo. So deescalation, in the past, has been seen by police services as soft policing, not real policing. That's changing, but it needs to be reinforced by supervision and sometimes sanctions.

On one hand, you can say that any group of people has some bad apples, but you also have to consider, what is allowing that to continue? So you have to examine the culture. What is allowing these things to slip through the cracks?

What needs to change?

There needs to be a strong commitment to accountability.

We need to be sure it's happening.

In terms of evaluating how people are doing, up till now, whether training's being used is a matter of self report. So officers say, 'yeah I find training useful, I use it,' or 'I didn't.'

That's not a very good measure of whether things are happening.

I think we need the community and the police to come together to see what's happening on the street. And that's through the use of body cameras.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

CBC News conducted the online survey by questioning panelists from the Angus Reid Forum between Jan. 29-31. There were 517 respondents, all of whom are over the age of 18. The results have been statistically weighted according to age and gender Census data to ensure a sample representative of the adult population of Toronto on these measures. The margin of error is +/- 4.3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.