Toronto

'She gonna get shot,' bystander says, but then watches police wait for woman in crisis to climb off cruiser

Unlike the videos of police interactions that typically make the news, no one in this will draw any weapons.

Warning: A video included in this story contains graphic language

Toronto police attempt to apprehend a woman who climbed onto a cruiser at Finch Avenue West and Milady Road on Jan. 1. (YouTube/ON GG)

The video opens to show a woman clearly in distress, weaving in the middle of a crowded Toronto street and yelling as she pulls herself up on the hood of a police cruiser and starts kicking at its windshield.

Another cruiser pulls up to the intersection at Finch Avenue West at Milady Road with its lights flashing and the woman moves on to start beating at the new car with her feet.

"She gonna get shot," said the person taking the video on Sunday from an upper-storey window.

But that's not what happens.

Unlike the videos of police interactions that typically make the news, no one in this will draw any weapons.

Instead, one of the officers gets out of the car that the 32-year-old woman is atop, gesturing at her, while indicating to his fellow officers to stay away. The woman breaks the back windshield of one of the cruisers but, within a minute of that happening, she gets off the car and follows an officer to a waiting ambulance.

CBC Toronto made several attempts to contact those who posted the video of the interaction online, but did not hear back — nor were reporters able to find any witnesses while canvassing the neighbourhood on Tuesday.

Both Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders and the chair of the police board's mental health subcommittee say those at the scene followed their training perfectly.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said officers followed their training perfectly during the takedown Sunday. (CBC)

Crisis training

Victor Willis agreed.

"I have to commend the police, they obviously did a great job," said the executive director of Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, which provides people with mental health issues and addictions with services and housing. "What a great way to start the new year."

The fact that the woman neither had a weapon when police were called to the intersection around 2:30 p.m., nor appeared to be threatening to harm anyone likely helped with the peaceful resolution, Willis said. 

"When we know people who have a small knife, stick, or hammer and we know that once a weapon is perceived, the protocol changes," Willis said.

'Last line of defence'

Toronto police get a refresher course on de-escalation protocol for three days a year. One of those days is devoted entirely to interactions with people having a mental health crisis; it was added as the force responded to the 84 recommendations from Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci's inquest into the shooting death of Sammy Yatim, a mentally ill Toronto man in 2013. Const. James Forcillo has since been convicted of attempted murder in the case, but has appealed the conviction.

When asked about how the Yatim case influenced the way officers are trained to deal with those in crisis, the service's director of communications replied instead that instances like those captured on video are the "every day" occurrences.

By the time people in crisis get to us, it means that they've been failed by people upstream.- Mark Pugash, Toronto Regional Police Services spokesman

"This was probably at the extreme end, but this is something that police officers in this city come into contact with many, many times a day, every single day of the year," Mark Pugash said. "And this can't be the best way to manage what is an increasing problem."

Toronto police received more than 23,000 calls last year involving someone in a mental health crisis, a jump of 11 per cent from 2015. Although police are "well trained" to de-escalate crisis calls, Pugash said that people with mental health issues should be interacting with the medical system rather than the legal one.

The woman arrested on Sunday was taken to hospital, but will not face any charges, he said.

"By the time people in crisis get to us, it means that they've been failed by people upstream," he said. "When police officers are the last line of defence, that's a problem." 

Pat Capponi said that she's seen a significant improvement in the mental health training for Toronto officers since she joined the police board about 10 years ago. (CBC News)

Video, policing and mental health

Pat Capponi credits camera phones with the change in attitude in both the police and the public when it comes use of force and those with mental health issues.

"All this has created an atmosphere where the police know it's a new ball game," she said. "Not that they were deliberate in what they did, but there was a permissive attitude — and that permission has been withdrawn."

The co-chair of the police board's mental health subcommittee, Capponi has spent more than 10 years training police on how to interact with mental health patients and survivors. She said she was impressed with what she saw in the New Year's Day video: an officer cleared other people from the area, created a rapport with the person in distress, and didn't crowd her, Capponi said.

"It's about reminding police that these folks aren't criminals — they're people held hostage by their illness and that's the way [officers] need to approach it."

Toronto police lauded on handling an altercation with a woman in distress over the weekend 1:44

With files from Alison Chiasson