Toronto police to divert some 911 calls to crisis responders as board approves $4M Taser contract

The projects teams up police with a civilian crisis centre to better response to mental health-related emergency calls coming from downtown Toronto.

Pilot project would still see police respond when weapon is involved, as in case of Regis Korchinski Paquet

The Toronto Police Service is trying out a new way to handle 911 calls for people with mental health-related emergencies. (CBC)

The Toronto Police Service is teaming up with a crisis response centre to provide support for mental health related emergency calls coming from downtown Toronto. The police board outlined details of the pilot project on Thursday, while also voting to approve the purchase of 1,700 new Tasers. 

The one-year initiative will see police evaluate incoming 911 calls, and based on specific non-imminent risk criteria, transfer calls to a crisis centre worker. 

Starting in late summer, staff from Gerstein Crisis Centre, a 24-hour community based crisis response centre, will begin rotations at the 911 communications centre, "to assist in the diversion of non-emergent mental health related calls away from a police response," Toronto police said in a news release.

Calls involving weapons, imminent threats to life, domestic violence, those requiring medical attention, or calls from a crisis hotline, hospital or emergency clinic will not be diverted. 

That means police would still have responded in the case of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, the 29-year old Black woman in crisis who fell to her death in Toronto after a police were initially called about an assault involving a knife.

Crisis calls skyrocket during pandemic

Toronto psychologist Tanaya Chatterjee says the need for mental health resources has never been greater.

"I underestimated the need, and it's the number of emails you get from clients requesting can you see them as soon as possible," said Chatterjee.

Toronto police receive approximately 33,000 mental health related calls each year. Crisis workers and psychologists say that number has skyrocketed during the pandemic. (Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

"The pandemic has actually increased that need. The need was there, and now it is multiplied by five times."

Gerstein Crisis Centre's executive director Susan Davis says crisis calls increased about 50 per cent during the pandemic.

"It's very overdue. And it's something that actually we desperately need to have in place," said Davis.

"We have heard clearly from people living with difficulties with their mental health and substance use and their families, that they cannot access the care they need when they need it."

Project part of police reform

Crisis workers will assist callers through an independent and confidential phone system, "providing immediate support and intervention, referrals and connection to further services as needed," said the police release.

The pilot project's estimated $522,000 price tag will be absorbed by the police operating budget, and is part of the board's 81 recommendations on police reform.

"This pilot project is one of several ways TPS is addressing an appeal from the mental health community to explore alternative models of mental health crisis response," said Deputy Chief Peter Yuen.

Toronto police receive 33,000 mental health calls a year, with 35 per cent coming from downtown neighbourhoods within 14, 51 and 52 divisions, which the pilot project will support. 

For her part, Chatterjee hopes the pilot project will help to destigmatize mental health.

"There comes a moment where I cannot handle that distress anymore. And my only way of acting out is yelling, screaming, throwing things. And then what happens? Somebody calls the police," she said. "So my behaviour gets stigmatized."

Toronto police will be getting 1,700 more tasers over the next five years to equip all its front line officers with their own devices. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Police board approves $4M Taser contract

At its meeting Thursday, the police board also approved a new contract with Axon Canada to purchase 1,700 new Tasers at a price tag of $4.1 million over 5 years.

According to a report from interim police chief James Ramer, the contract allows the force to replace outdated CEWs (conducted energy weapons) and equip each officer with their own device. 

Right now, the Tasers are signed out, and shared with other officers. 

Ramer says the model of Taser the force will purchase, called Taser 7, is better than previous models — with more advanced technology.

"The minute the device is pulled from it's holster, if the officer's body cam is not activated, it is immediately activated, and all actions are now being recorded when that device is pulled," Ramer told the board Thursday. 

"It's further accountability."

'We don't need a force that is more weaponized'

John Sewell, with the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, urged board members to vote against the contract.

"Do we really want a police force that's even more weaponized, where CEWs will be used more often than they are now? I would argue no, that's not the case," said Sewell, who argued that certain groups of people are more likely to be Tasered.

"We know that half the time CEWs are used, they are used against people with mental illness," said Sewell. "That's a good reason not to do it."  

Ramer told the board de-escalation is always at the forefront of police interactions, but said conducted energy weapons save lives.

Toronto police recorded six minor injuries from Taser use last year after firing the stun guns 178 times. 

With files from Jessica Ng