‘An important beginning’: Toronto police to divert some 911 mental health calls to civilian crisis centre

Posted on June 25, 2021 in Child & Family Delivery System

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TheStar.com – News/GTA
June 24, 2021.   Wendy Gillis, Staff Reporter

In an ongoing effort to remove officers from mental health calls, Toronto police is set to launch a pilot project to divert some 911 calls to the Gerstein Crisis Centre, a long-established emergency mental health service.

Starting next month, a call-taker from the Toronto-based Gerstein centre — a civilian organization that provides 24-hour mental health crisis response — will be embedded within the Toronto police 911 call centre to identify mental-health related calls where a crisis worker could respond instead of police.

The hope is to gradually reduce the number of 911 mental health calls where an armed, uniformed officer is sent to respond when a social worker or nurse is better suited.

“This is an important beginning of a shift to move away from police response,” Steve Lurie, co-chair of the Toronto police board mental health and addictions advisory panel, said in an interview Thursday. “It’s a very important step because I think Gerstein has been doing this work for so many years. They are the go-to group.”

Details of the pilot project were presented Thursday to the Toronto police board, which last year passed 81 recommendations aimed at changing policing in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Just days after Floyd’s murder, Afro-Indigenous woman Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death in the presence of Toronto police while in a mental health crisis, setting off protests in Toronto and across Canada.

Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, later cleared the Toronto police officers involved of any criminal wrongdoing following an investigation that determined Korchinski-Paquet lost her balance and fell after attempting to scale her balcony railing and step onto her neighbour’s balcony.

Amid growing public pressure to send social workers and health care professionals to mental health calls — not police — city council voted earlier this year to launch a separate pilot program to see civilian dispatched to mental health crisis calls where violence is not being threatened.

Police said Thursday that its diversion program will not apply to calls involving weapons or those where there is an imminent threat to life, or domestic violence. This means police would still have been dispatched to a call like the Korchinski-Paquet case, which initially involved a reports of knives.

But Toronto police will be evaluating, on a weekly basis, which calls are coming in with an eye to expanding the criteria for diversion, Dept. Chief Peter Yuen told the board.

“The most important thing is for communication operators, and the Gerstein crisis workers, to collaborate, and to work together, to see if this is a call that is suitable for Gerstein to take,” Yuen said.

“The (Gerstein) crisis worker, through an independent and confidential telephone system, will assist individuals in crisis by providing immediate support and intervention, referrals and connection to further services as needed,” Toronto police said in a statement Thursday.

The cost of the project, estimated to be $522,000, will be absorbed by the service’s operating budget, police said.

At its meeting Thursday, the board also approved a new contract to Axon Canada to purchase new conducted energy weapons (CEWs), or Tasers — a move that will cost the force $4.1 million spread out over a five-year period.

According to a report from interim police chief James Ramer, the contract allows Toronto police to both replace outdated CEWs and move toward a “personal deployment model,” meaning each officer trained in using a CEW will be given their own weapon. Ramer told the board Thursday that this will “preserve the functional life of the device by not being shared.”

Moments before the board approved the purchase, John Sewell, from the advocacy group the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, urged the board not to green light the contract, saying that having more officers equipped with Tasers will simply mean they will be used more.

Sewell implored the board to spend the money “in more productive ways which do not involve the use of a weapon.”

“Clearly the money could be spent on engaging community members to respond to calls involving those in mental crisis, the group of individuals against whom police too often use CEWs,” Sewell said.

Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing for the Star.

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