Toronto police lay out changes to how officers deal with those in crisis

Toronto police say they have made sweeping changes in how they deal with those in crisis, including adopting a "zero harm" approach.

Chief Mark Saunders says 'de-escalation' is now at forefront in dealing with mentally ill

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said Thursday the force has implemented several recommendations from an extensive report by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci . (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Toronto police say they have made sweeping changes in how they deal with those in crisis, including adopting a "zero harm" approach.

Deputy chief Mike Federico said Thursday the force has implemented an overwhelming majority of recommendations issued as part of a coroner's inquest and in a separate report by a former Supreme Court justice on police's use of lethal force.

Speaking at the monthly meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board, Federico said 45 of the 46 police-related recommendations made in the inquest have been applied, as well as 79 of the 84 issued in the probe by Frank Iacobucci.

He says new recruits will receive three more weeks of training to emphasize de-escalation techniques, something critics have long been calling for.

The deputy chief says the use of body-worn cameras will also help with officers' accountability when dealing with those in crisis.

Using body cameras was one of 84 recommendations contained in a July 2015 report written by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci. The report, focusing on police use of force, was spurred by the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim aboard a Toronto streetcar in 2013.

Stun guns and body cameras

In his report, titled "Police Encounters with People in Crisis," Iacobucci recommended every officer carry a stun gun and every officer who "may encounter people in crisis" wear a body camera. 

Iacobucci said that his report was not about laying blame on anyone but was meant to consider how lethal outcomes can be prevented in the future.

The force introduced the cameras on May 18. So far 65 officers are using them, with 35 more to adopt the devices within a month, according to Staff Sgt. Michael Barsky, who's overseeing the $500,000 test run.

A proposal to introduce a so-called "sock" gun -- a modified shotgun that fires soft bullets similar to a bean bag – was criticized by at least one board member at Thursday's meeting.

  "It's like getting hit with a fastball and then it's too late to talk," said Pat Capponi, the co-chair of the police mental health subcomittee. "That's not really good opening dialogue. As a last resort, whenever possible, not first."

Capponi told the board that "Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams should be the first responders" for all calls involving those with mental health issues, adding that "it makes little sense to call them after an incident."

Officers, she said, should adopt a zero-harm approach and avoid using lethal force.

Chief Mark Saunders said in the past, police used to "justify our actions because we could say, 'It's based on actions and behaviour, therefore we did this.' 

"We need to take it a step further now, we have to look at the intent behind the actions of the person in distress," Saunders said. "We have to be careful not to go on just behaviour alone. We have to look at the entire picture. Why are we here? What are the circumstances?

"The culture change is de-escalation is at the forefront, not at the end of the thought process in policing."


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