Toronto

Most people killed in encounters with Toronto Police had problems with mental health or substance abuse

Tom Walker remembers his brother Robert as a big, strong protector and someone he looked up to. He died after an encounter with Toronto Police in 2004.

Brother of man who died in confrontation with Toronto Police now works with first responders

Robert Walker died after an encounter with Toronto Police in 2004. Like many victims in police-involved deaths in Toronto, Walker was on drugs and had mental health problems. (Tom Walker)

This story is part of Deadly Force, a CBC News investigation into police-involved fatalities in Canada.


Tom Walker remembers his brother Robert as a big, strong protector and someone he looked up to.

"He was a big brother. He was a bit of hero to us," Walker said.

But Robert Walker had his troubles.

"He wasn't an angel," his brother said in an interview.

Walker, 52, said his brother, like him, had a rough childhood.

A home full of drugs and alcohol. A violent father.

As an adult, Walker says his brother turned to drugs himself, coped with addiction, mental health problems, and did jail time.

On a cold February morning in 2004, Robert Walker's troubles were overtaking him, and what happened next is why Tom Walker is now counselling first responders on how to handle people in mental distress or with substance abuse problems.

Robert Walker, left, and Tom Walker. Robert died after an encounter with Toronto Police in 2004. Tom now works with first responders trying to improve the way they deal with people who have mental health or substance abuse problems. (Tom Walker)

Police were called for a pre-dawn disturbance at the Woodbine Avenue rooming house where Walker lived.

The 41-year-old had been threatening to kill people and clawing at his own skin, officers said.

Shortly after police arrived, Walker stormed outside.

He was high on cocaine and naked.

Walker was a barrel-chested former body builder; a "scary looking dude", according to his brother, in a drug-induced "psychotic" state.

In the middle of Woodbine Avenue, a group of Toronto Police officers surrounded Robert Walker.

Mental health problems, substance abuse common in Toronto

A situation like this is not uncommon.

Toronto Police, like other police forces across the country, frequently deal with people who are on drugs or dealing with mental health problems.

These situations can turn deadly.

CBC News has compiled data on more than 460 police-involved fatalities between 2000 and 2017.

In Toronto, 52 people were killed in encounters with Toronto Police during this time.

(CBC)

No government agency or police force maintains national statistics on these deaths.

According to the data, 70 per cent of the victims were dealing with mental health problems or substance abuse when they died.

In Toronto, 33 of the 52 victims (63.5 per cent) had either mental distress or substance abuse problems.

In recent years, steps have been taken to improve how officers handle these incidents.

'There's so many times that these individuals don't need to go to hospital, they don't need to be arrested. They just need somebody to talk to," said Sgt. Steve Holmes, who heads up a special unit of the Hamilton police force designed to intervene in crisis situations involving mental health. (Barry Smith/CBC)

Toronto Police officers get specialized training focusing on de-escalation. Officers complete a three-day course on these skills once a year.

Also, the Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, first launched in 2000, pair police officers with mental health nurses from local hospitals.

According to Toronto Police, in 2017 officers responded to more than 27,500 calls and apprehended more than 9,800 individuals. There were zero deaths in 2017. 

"There are tens of thousands of times each year where officers are able to de-escalate a call for a person in crisis, resulting in a safe conclusion for everyone involved and often times transporting that person to receive the medical care they needed," Toronto Police Inspector Chris Boddy said in a statement.

'Lots of pepper spray, lots of chaos'

But all that progress wasn't enough to save Robert Walker's life that morning on Woodbine Avenue.

Tom Walker says when his brother refused to cooperate with police, the pepper spray started.

"There was a long struggle. Lots of pepper spray, lots of chaos," Walker said.

After he was restrained, Walker was put in an ambulance and died on the way to hospital.

A pathologist found the cause of death was a cocaine overdose.

Tom Walker learned much of what happened that night at the coroner's inquest into his brother's death.

It wasn't all he learned.

"I think the police did the best they can do," he said. "They aren't given a whole lot of tools to talk people down or other strategies outside of restraint. They're given a gun, a stick, and pepper spray and told to handle things non-violently."

Since his brother's death, Walker, who previously worked as a social worker and counsellor, started counselling police on how to deal with people like his brother — those with mental health and substance abuse problems.

He's now a support worker with Ornge air ambulance, providing counselling for paramedics and call-takers.

Walker doesn't blame the officers involved in his brother's death.

Tom Walker's brother, Robert, died after an interaction with Toronto Police in 2004. Walker now works with police agencies to improve the way they deal with people who have mental health or substance abuse problems. (CBC/Peter Valkov)

"Initially I was pissed," he said, but since then he's come to realize how difficult it is for police in these situations.

"They have their life on the line," Walker said. "They could have three of those incidents in a week. And that's hard."

He'd like to see more training for officers, so they can learn to not only protect themselves and the public, but also the people they're dealing with.

He believes his brother would have responded to a more "calculated" and "smooth" interaction with Toronto Police and "not everybody shouting."

Efforts being made by Toronto Police are encouraging for Walker.

But 14 years after his brother's death, Walker says it's still a problem.

"It's not changing enough," he said.

About the Author

Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español. trevor.dunn@cbc.ca