Canada's largest psychiatric facility is throwing its support behind mounting calls to remove officers from the front lines for people in mental health emergencies.
"It's clear we need a new way forward," the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto said Tuesday.
The move follows a string of deaths involving people in crisis, including Ejaz Choudry — a 62-year-old father of four with schizophrenia killed by police in Mississauga, Ont., after his family called a non-emergency line.
Choudry was the third Canadian in crisis to be killed by police over the past month. On June 4, Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman, was shot by police in Edmundston, N.B.
Eight days later, Rodney Levi, 48, was fatally shot by the RCMP in New Brunswick. The chief of his First Nation community later described him as troubled but not violent.
D'Andre Campbell, 26, was fatally shot in April in Brampton, Ont., after his family says he called 911 for help.
"For too long, the health-care system has relied on police to respond to mental health crises in the community," CAMH said in its statement.
"Mental Health is health. This means that people experiencing a mental health crisis need health care.
"Police should not be first responders. Police are not trained in crisis care and should not be expected to lead this important work."
Racism compounds crisis interactions, giving rise to the "tragic outcomes" Canada has seen recently, CAMH added.
In Toronto, mobile mental health teams consist of a registered nurse and police officer, but are mandated only to provide secondary responses. Police officers alone remain the first responders, particularly for calls involving a weapon.
That was the case in the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year old Black woman who fell to her death in Toronto after police were called to her home for reports of an assault involving a knife.
In the days afterward, police chief Mark Saunders said: "There's no way I would send a nurse into a knife fight."
Nearby Peel Region has a similar model: the Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team, launched in January, deploys from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. every day. But whether the teams serve as first responders or take a secondary role depends on the nature of the call, the force told CBC News.
John Sewell, former Toronto mayor and now the co-ordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, says his organization has called on the Toronto Police Services Board to have a mental health nurse paired with a plainclothes officer respond to calls for people in crisis.
At every turn, he says, he's been met with resistance.
'The result is that people get killed'
"The board has consistently refused and said we've got to send the armed, uniformed officers first," he told CBC News. "Well, the result is that people get killed."
As for the argument that armed officers are needed because a situation might be violent, Sewell says trained mental health professionals handle such situations regularly and are trained in de-escalation — something that police aren't primarily trained to do.
"When someone has had experiences with people in uniform that involved in some way being restrained or tackled… there might be a certain amount of scar tissue so to speak when they're put into a similar situation," said David Gratzer, staff psychiatrist at CAMH, emphasizing the vast majority of people with mental health issues are not violent.
"Mental health professionals deal with agitated patients frequently and they understand that certain techniques can be highly successful."
Alok Mukherjee, the former chair of Toronto's police board from 2005 to 2015, says he was encouraged to see more mobile crisis units added during his time there, but says the program falls short because they don't operate around the clock and aren't designated as first responders.
"That's where we hit a road block," he said.
Board 'willing to explore' other models
Of the nearly one million phone calls Toronto police receive every year, about 30,000 are mental health related, the force has said. Across Canada, from 2000 to 2017, a CBC News investigation previously found, 70 per cent of the people who died in police encounters struggled with mental health issues, substance abuse or both.
In an email to CBC News, Toronto Police Services Board Chair Jim Hart said the board remains "very supportive" of the existing mobile crisis team program, but that it is "committed to working to explore enhancements of and alternatives to this concept.
"The board is also willing to explore and consider other models that would provide better service to those in our community experiencing mental health or addiction issues; these models may include these services delivered by mental health experts without police," Hart said.
All of the above cases are being investigated by the relevant police oversight agencies.
In a statement, the Peel Regional Police Board said while it couldn't comment on individual cases, "these deaths are a tragic reminder that there is much work to be done," adding that the incidents will inform the board's work on key issues including community engagement, strategic planning and the upcoming budget.
As Ontario's police watchdog has itself pointed out, however, officers at the centre of cases involving serious injury or death of civilians cannot be compelled to turn over their notes or participate in interviews with the Special Investigations Unit.
Some say that means the SIU itself lacks the teeth to fully investigate allegations of police wrongdoing.
Asked Tuesday if the province would consider amending the legislation, Jenessa Crognali, spokesperson for Ontario's attorney general said the rules stem from "principles against self-incrimination."
She said those rules will remain even after the current Police Services Act is replaced with the Comprehensive Ontario Police Services Act, passed earlier this year.
As for whether police services being funded through taxpayer money means officers should be compelled to answer to an oversight body, Crognali did not answer.