London

Proposed London crisis unit would minimize police use of force during mental health calls

London Police Chief Steve Williams wants to create a dedicated team of police officers paired with mental health workers to help minimize the use of force by police in situations involving mental illness. 

Chief Steve Williams wants to re-allocate $500K to support 4 officers in a satellite office

Two masked London police officers respond to a routine call at a community health clinic in the city's Old East Village area. (Colin Butler/CBC)

London Police Chief Steve Williams wants to create a specialized team of officers paired with mental health workers to help minimize use of force by police in situations involving mental illness. 

The proposal was submitted by Williams in a report to the London Police Services Board for its upcoming September 17 meeting and appears to be an effort to address the fact that police by default have become the first line of contact for severely troubled people.

"Police officers should not be the primary responders (and frequently the only responders) to persons in crisis in the absence of information suggesting a threat to public safety," Williams wrote in the report. 

Dr. Javeed Sukhera, the chair of the London Police Services board has expressed a willingness to listen to protesters who want to "defund" the police, saying he's interested in the possibility of taking money away from traditional policing and putting it into resources for mental health and crisis management for the city's racialized and vulnerable groups. 

Caleb Tubila Njoko died in hospital after falling from the 15th floor balcony at 85 Walnut Street in London, Ont. after police were called to the unit for a person in distress. (Provided by Godelive Tutonda)

The recent high profile death of Caleb Tubila Njoko, a young black man, has also focused attention on the way the London Police Service responds to people with mental disorders.

Njoko died three days after he plummeted from the balcony of his mother's home at a highrise in the Riverside Drive and Wharncliffe Road area in May when police were called to the apartment for help. 

Black Lives Matter London has been among the most prominent critics of police, leading a number of "defund the police" rallies and writing an open letter to the service, demanding the badge of an officer who was still being paid, despite being convicted of negligence in the 2016 in-custody death of an Oneida woman.

On Tuesday, group spokeswoman Alexandra Kane did not make herself available for an interview with CBC News about Chief Steve William's proposed reforms. 

The London Police Service declined an interview with CBC News about the reforms on Tuesday. At first, the service promised to answer questions by email, then said it could not speak to the proposal prior to the September 17 London Police Services Board meeting at which Williams will make his pitch.  

New unit would re-allocate $500,000

The proposal submitted by Chief Steve Williams appears to be an effort to address the fact that police by default have become the first line of contact for severely troubled people. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

In the report, Williams asks the board for the re-allocation of $500,000 in order to assign four officers to a dedicated unit called a "crisis outreach and support team," or COAST, where eligible officers would work from home rather than at the increasingly cramped London Police Headquarters building at Adelaide and Dundas. 

The unit's job would be to help deal with the approximately 3,600 mental health calls fielded by the city's law enforcement officers annually.

The report said those calls tie officers up for more than eight hours on average and result in 752 arrests a year, something William's report noted "should be a last resort." 

The proposed unit would employ four specialized officers, a sergeant and three constables, who would be paired with outreach workers from the Canadian Mental Health Association of Elgin-Middlesex "to attend calls for service involving persons in crisis and, more importantly, facilitate early intervention and support for clients that will engage community and health-centred solutions rather than criminal justice-centred solutions," the report said. 

The report said the new unit would aim to shift typical frontline officers away from responding to mental health crises, but it was not clear from the report whether the new unit would be a first response or a secondary one, arriving at the scene after regular officers have sussed out the situation. 

The report also did not specify whether the unit would conduct follow up visits after the mentally ill suspect has been connected to mental health services. 

Williams wrote that, if implemented, the new specialized unit would deliver quicker, "more appropriate" responses to mental health crises in the city that would reduce the risk of conflict with officers and improve outcomes for suspects. 

For the community, the report said it would improve police wait times, the number of mentally ill people in custody and free up frontline officers for other calls. 

If implemented, Williams wrote the program would create a $48,000 shortfall in the 2021 police budget.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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