TPS not making enough progress in reforming response to mental health calls, critics say

A new report from the Toronto Police Service says its making progress in improving its response to mental distress and drug overdose calls, but critics disputed that Thursday at a meeting of the board that oversees policing in the city.

TPS updated Toronto Police Services Board on its Mental Health and Addictions Strategy

A closeup of the doors on a Toronto police cruiser.
The Toronto Police Service updated the progress it's making in reforming the way it responds to mental health and drug overdose calls at a Toronto Police Services Board meeting on Thursday. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

A new report from Toronto police says they're making progress in improving their response to mental distress and drug overdose calls, but critics disputed that Thursday at a meeting of the board that oversees policing in the city.

Police provided the update to the Toronto Police Services Board on their Mental Health and Addictions Strategy, which they instituted after a recommendation from the board's Mental Health External Advisory Committee in October of 2019. The strategy aims to provide a framework for the Toronto Police Service (TPS) when dealing with people with mental health and addictions.

"There have been many voices over a number of years now asking us to examine how we handle these exceptionally challenging calls for service," Toronto Police Chief James Ramer told the board Thursday.

"The service is listening, and acting."

The initiative comes after global protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism in 2020. The deaths of Ejaz ChoudryD'Andre CampbellRegis Korchinski-Paquet and others during interactions with police that year sparked calls for change and a decrease in funding for police services across the Greater Toronto Area.

A sign at a protest against police shootings and violence in the Greater Toronto Area is pictured here. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

According to the report, police have implemented, or are in the process of implementing, 42 of 46 items included in the strategy, such as more de-escalation training and courses on implicit bias and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.

The board complimented Ramer on the progress TPS is making. But citizens who made deputations Thursday weren't so positive in their reviews.

Nora Ottenhof, an economist and PhD candidate in environmental policy at Ryerson University, said police should have less involvement in the response to mental health calls, not more. 

"Even with greater de-escalation training, TPS officers will always, for many community members, be figures of violence, aggression and criminalization," Ottenhof told the board.

She said continued police involvement in mental health calls goes against civilian-led initiatives — such as the mobile response teams approved by city council last February as part of its 2022 plan for the SafeTO strategy.

On Wednesday, Mayor John Tory's executive committee endorsed an $8.5-million price tag for those response teams.

Updates on training, data and crisis intervention

TPS said it will launch an interactive dashboard in February so the public can track what police are doing to implement the strategy, and in the future, seven years of data concerning persons in crisis calls for service and Mental Health Act apprehensions. 

In addition to training on implicit bias and anti-Black and Indigenous racism, police say they're also doing more screening to find recruits who have more experience working with vulnerable groups.

But in her deputation, Inez Hillel told the board the TPS training curriculum must be available to the public for transparency and she called for the decriminalization of drugs.

"I believe understanding the history of drug criminalization is especially important to understand why decriminalizing drugs, and as an interim step, not enforcing drug laws, is anti-racism," said Hillel, an economist and co-founder of Vivic Research, an organization that supports social justice initiatives with data-driven economic research.

"Increased training for all officers doesn't change the reality than when police assist paramedics on calls to Safe Consumption Sites, they make the service unsafe for people who use drugs," she told the board.

"An interactive dashboard has not changed that criminalizing drug use, both in the context of addiction and recreational use, makes it harder for people who use drugs to make safe decisions."

Toronto police chief James Ramer was complimented by the Toronto Police Services Board Thursday for his and the service's work in furthering the Mental Health and Addictions Strategy. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Ramer, in response to the deputants' critiques, said police response to drug calls still includes first-aid and naloxone administration in case it's needed.

"We're also there and we're able to arrest the drug dealers that are actually selling the product with fentanyl in it, and lethal substances such as that, that the user has no idea that they're taking," he said. 

"In many ways, that is our focus in terms of criminal response."

Increase in mobile units 

TPS also says it has increased the number of its mobile crisis intervention teams, which pair a mental health nurse and a specially trained police office, from 10 to 13 and says they're now operational 14 hours a day.

The MCIT program will be evaluated throughout 2022 to measure the "effectiveness of case management" and "repeat client referrals and their associated outcomes," the police report said.

But the Law Union of Ontario called the apparent strengthening of these programs concerning.

"It concerns us that TPS has or is seeking to become an integral participant in collection and sharing of personal information about individuals as well as in the provision of ongoing support to them," wrote Howard Morton, the head of the union, in his submitted deputation. 

"This, we believe, runs counter to the currently prevalent community expectation and the city's own direction."