Bill Blair addresses media after the Sammy Yatim shooting, July 29, 2013.
A major report aimed at preventing police shootings of people in crisis is getting mixed reviews from mental health advocates.
The highly anticipated report, penned by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, was commissioned by Chief Bill Blair last summer after Sammy Yatim was killed by a cop on a TTC streetcar. The 413-page document was unveiled at police headquarters Thursday morning, almost a year to the day of Yatim's death, which was caught on camera and provoked angry street protests.
Iacobucci made 84 recommendations covering everything from police training to the culture of the force and the equipment officers carry. The report includes some recommendations that mental health advocates have long been pushing for, including expanding the availability and mandate of Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams. It also advises that the TPS strike a committee, partially made up of mental health survivors, to guide the force's implementation of the report.
But Iacobucci may also have set the force down a path that advocates have warned against. The report recommends a pilot project to equip frontline officers with conducted energy weapons, or Tasers, a plan which many believe will have more officers reaching for a potentially deadly weapon instead relying on de-escalation training.
Pat Capponi, a mental health advocate who will serve on the implementation committee, says the idea of expanding MCITs is "really critical," but she's concerned about increasing the use of Tasers, despite Iacobucci recommending some checks to prevent their misuse.
"I hate the idea of Tasers," she says. "I'm afraid that [officers will] pull them real quick. I'm afraid that our people will die."
The report is only the latest attempt to improve interactions between officers and people in mental distress, which account for 20,000 police calls annually. Those interactions have turned deadly with alarming regularity in recent years, resulting in the deaths of Yatim, Michael Eligon, Charles McGillivary, Sylvia Klibingaitis, and Reyal Jardine-Douglas since 2010.
Previous coroner's reports and reviews that followed those incidents have also resulted in recommendations for reform and promises by the police to change, but this is the highest-profile effort to date.
"This is not a report that will gather dust," Blair pledged Thursday. "This is a report that will gather momentum."
Highlights of the recommendations include:
Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams
- Launch a pilot project of MCITs along the model used in Memphis and Hamilton, where frontline officers trained in mental health issues are used as first responders. In Toronto the teams are made up of one nurse and one officer, and are used only as a secondary response.
- Make at least one of the existing model of MCIT available in every police division, and assess whether they should be available 24 hours a day and used as first responders. The teams currently have limited hours and are only available in some divisions.
- Require all officers carrying Tasers to wear a camera, complete mental health and de-escalation training, and, if the Taser is used, report which de-escalation techniques were attempted before it was fired.
- Advocate for a new national study of the health effects of Tasers, particularly on vulnerable groups.
- Establish a database to document Taser use and "standardize reporting of data concerning the medical effects of CEWs."
- Issue cameras to "all officers who may encounter people in crisis" in order to "ensure greater accountability for all concerned."
- Develop a policy for protecting privacy, including the appropriate storage methods and retention time of collected footage, and mechanisms by which members of the public can request access to and deletion of recordings.
- Put more emphasis on containment, communication, de-escalation, firearm avoidance, combatting stigma, and exposing officers to direct contact with mental health survivors and the mental health system.
- Require new recruits to complete a mental health first aid course, and give preference to candidates who have experience in the mental health field.
- With the help of police psychiatrists, screen recruits to find those likely to respond well to people in crisis.
- Develop an early intervention protocol to identify cops who don't respond well to mental health calls.
- Review disciplinary procedures to ensure that sanctions against officers who mishandle mental health calls are consistent and appropriate, up to and including suspension of pay and their removal from their position.
- Create incentives for officers who put mental health training into practice, including making successful use of de-escalation techniques one of the criteria for promotion.
Use of force protocol
- Revise the protocol to emphasize good communication as the "default technique in all stages" of interactions with people in crisis, the importance of preserving the lives of subjects as well as officers, and using lethal force only as a last resort.
- Convene an advisory committee made up of members from hospitals, community health organizations, police, and mental health survivors, to guide the implementation of the report.
- Issue a report "at least annually" to update the public on progress made in implementing Iacobucci's recommendations.