Jul 24 2014
TORONTO - Expanding the use of Tasers by front-line police officers, equipping them with body-worn cameras and giving them deeper access to information about people in crisis could help prevent deadly use of force by police, says a new report.
Former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci's report on the Toronto Police Service, which was sparked by the killing of a teenager on an empty streetcar last summer, makes 84 recommendations aimed at reducing the number of deaths during officers' interactions with the public.
"If reasonable steps can be taken to prevent even one unnecessary death, then those steps must be taken,'' Iacobucci said Thursday. "It is clear that the police are part of the mental-health system. They have become the front-line mental-health workers.''
The release of the report comes just days before the one-year anniversary of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim's death and amid a lawsuit by the teen's family against the officer who shot him and another who Tasered him as he lay dying.
The incident, which was captured on video, sparked a public outcry and prompted Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair to ask Iacobucci last August to take a broad look at how officers interact with people in crisis and to come up with recommendations.
"This is not a report that will gather dust,'' Blair said as the 346-page document was made public. "This is a report that will gather momentum.''
Iacobucci and his team interviewed more than 100 people - including the families of individuals killed by police - and analysed more than 1,200 documents as well as submissions from the public in putting together the report.
The team also looked at recommendations from previous Ontario coroners' inquests and the advice of experts from the U.S. and the U.K.
"When analysing how to prevent deaths in such encounters, one must focus on how to prevent either the crisis itself or the encounter with the police from occurring in the first place, which involves improving the mental-health system among other things,'' said Iacobucci.
"A failure to de-escalate can arise from a number of causes, including lack of understanding by police regarding the level of risk posed by the person in crisis or a lack of knowledge or ability on how to de-escalate effectively.''
Advocates for people with mental illnesses expressed some concern about a number of recommendations relating to expanded use of Tasers, saying police should always aim to de-escalate situations before using conducted energy weapons.
Iacobucci's report recommended Toronto police consider conducting a pilot project to assess the potential for expanding Taser access within the force.
It also suggested the force issue body-worn cameras to all officers who may encounter people in crisis to ensure greater accountability and transparency.
Among the report's other recommendations is a suggestion that Toronto police create a comprehensive police and mental health oversight body to help share health-care information with police, including a voluntary registry of vulnerable people.
It also recommends the force "more proactively and comprehensively educate officers'' on mental-health resources and give every officer a point of contact in the mental-health system they can contact for advice.
There are also recommended changes to the city's Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, which currently only operate within limited hours.
Iacobucci recommended having the teams notified of every call involving a person in crisis and also called for the development of a pilot Crisis Intervention team to complement the program, with the aim of being able to provide a specialized response to those in crisis around the clock.
A number of recommendations also focused on the selection of police officers, with Iacobucci suggesting all new constables required to compete a mental-health first-aid course.
He also recommended that while hiring, preference be given to applicants who have community services experience, past involvement related to the mental-health community and higher education.
Iacobucci noted that his report was not about laying blame on anyone but rather was meant to consider how lethal outcomes can be prevented in the future.
"The premise of the report is that the target should be zero deaths when police interact with a member of the public,'' he said.