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Toronto police chief supports overhauling response to those in crisis


June 30, 2020
By The Canadian Press

Toronto’s police chief says he does not support arbitrary cuts to the force’s budget, but does support overhauling how the force deals with those in crisis.

Chief Mark Saunders cautioned that there is currently no alternative system in place for handling mental health-related calls and says there must be a new plan in place before any reforms take effect.

“I embrace that idea, where someone creates something where don’t go at all, that’s a great day for all of us,” Saunders said at a virtual city council meeting that is debating police reform.

Mayor John Tory has put forward a motion proposing a suite of changes to policing that also includes anti-racism measures and the implementation of body-worn cameras.

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Calls to defund police have grown around the world in the wake of the alleged police killing of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis. They also come about a month after the death in Toronto of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman who fell from her balcony while police were in her home.

Thousands of protesters have taken to Toronto’s streets over the last month demanding change to policing in the city.

Josh Matlow, a local councillor, had put forth a motion to cut the police budget by 10 per cent, but withdrew that motion after the mayor put forward his motion.

The mayor is seeking the “creation of non-police led response to calls which do not involve weapons or violence, such as those involving individuals experiencing mental health crises and where a police response is not necessary.”

The mayor is also seeking the cost savings to the police budget that change would make.

The motion also wants a line-by-line police budget breakdown, an auditor general review of the budget to identify cost savings and investment in community services.

The city is also looking for strategies to address anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.

And the city is looking to equip all officers with body-worn cameras by Jan. 1, 2021, which Saunders said would cost about $5 million per year.

As part of overhauling the response to mental health calls, the motion seeks to have police notify crisis units for every call for someone experiencing a crisis.

There are currently eight mobile crisis intervention teams that involve a police officer and nurse trained in dealing with those in the throes of a mental health crisis, Saunders said. They do not operate 24 hours per day.

Police respond to more than 30,000 mental health calls per year, or about 82 calls per day. The teams are not primary responders — they are dispatched once patrol officers have arrived and evaluated the situation.

Saunders said mental health calls are complex.

“We’re talking about calls where machetes are involved, axes are involved and whenever we do have these calls, it’s mandatory two officers respond,” he said.

“I’d rather have the sit down and all educate ourselves a little more on what we do and what the public wants done.”

Saunders is set to retire at the end of July and the mayor is also calling for a broad consultation with the public to find his successor.

– Liam Casey

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2020.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc., 2020