By the numbers, the report of former Supreme Court Judge Frank Iacobucci on how Toronto Police deal with mentally and emotionally disturbed people goes like this: 274 pages, 84 recommendations, and one great big long-in-the-coming, almost sorrowful acknowledgement of how the world is.
Because of the chaotic patchwork that is Ontario’s mental health system and the dim prospects for change, Mr. Iacobucci has essentially told the police to accept the hard truth that like it or not, they are the front lines there too, so suck it up and get on with learning how to get better at it.
His report, requested by Chief Bill Blair last August in the wake of the controversial police shooting death of teenager Sammy Yatim on a Dundas West streetcar, is permeated both with pragmatism and magnificent empathy.
Even as he acknowledged “the basic and glaring fact that the Toronto Police Service alone cannot provide the complete answer” to the growing problem of “lethal outcomes” involving mentally ill and disturbed people, Mr. Iacobucci nonetheless provided to the force what Chief Blair called “a road map, a very clear sense of direction” for the future.
Chief Blair, for his part, immediately pledged fast implementation of the sweeping recommendations, and promised “this is not a report that will gather dust.”
At bottom, while the judge’s plan involves more training (especially in the de-escalation of crises, with the judge suggesting that the failure to de-escalate should be tied to performance reviews and promotion), more sophisticated recruit screening and hiring (in that the force might look to nursing and social work programs for candidates), better equipment (including more Tasers, to be used with body cameras, for more officers, and body-worn cameras, period, for front-line officers) and cultural change (with “mental health champions” in every division), its siren call is that police shooting deaths are so awful and so traumatic for everyone involved that preventing them — even one — ought to be a core value of the force.
The goal, he said, “should be zero deaths when police interact with a member of the public — no death of the subject, the police officer involved, or any member of the public.”
The retired judge with the distinguished record of public service joined other members of his review team, all lawyers from the Toronto firm of Torys where Mr. Iacobucci is senior counsel, on separate ride-alongs with the force’s Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, each composed of a psychiatric nurse and an officer.
And he was clearly distressed by what he saw and heard from about 100 interviews the team conducted, including those with four families of people who were killed by police (two in Toronto) and with three officers who have killed some of them.
As he spoke at a press conference at police headquarters Thursday, Mr. Iacobucci occasionally appeared to struggle with his own emotions, as when he said that “people in crisis,” as he calls those who meet the police when in turmoil, often exacerbated by drugs or alcohol, are “our brothers, sisters, parents and children…” or when he said that, “Above all, the person in crisis needs help.”
He later acknowledged his distress, saying he was stricken.
“You’d have to be robotic not to be moved by the human tragedy of this,” he said. “Twenty thousand encounters [this is the annual number of times Toronto Police deal with disturbed people],” he said. “There are stories behind each of those.
“That was an eye-opener to me — the complexity behind all of those stories is quite moving — and challenging.”
While Mr. Iacobucci’s call for change may be seen in some quarters as coming decades too late, he said that in his view, the Toronto force has in fact been quite nimble organizationally, and is a world “leader in this subject in a number of respects” and has done much that is positive.
He said the “most distressing societal aspect” of the review was the two-headed reality monster he and the team met — the disarray in the mental health system, and how the police with their “24/7 availability and experience in dealing with human conflict and disturbances” are “inexorably drawn into mental and emotional fields involving individuals with personal crisis.”
In other words, in the absence of a properly functioning mental health system, the police are and will continue to be not only the first front-line worker the person in anguish meets, but also perhaps the only one.
In fact, his opening words in the chapter on that system were these: “A universal theme, frequently conveyed … by police, mental healthcare workers and the community of people who have experienced mental illness, is that Ontario does not have a mental health system.”
Among the critical problems are the lingering effects of deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill without providing either housing or support in the community; the difficulty of apprehending the ill under the provincial Mental Health Act and the revolving door syndrome that follows; the Byzantine patchwork of 400 mental health organizations in Toronto alone; and the “concerning inattentiveness” of the Ontario ministry of health and long-term care, which rarely bothers even to send representatives to attend coroner’s inquests into police shooting deaths.
These things, Mr. Iacobucci said, combine to mean but one thing: The Toronto force “has, in effect, become part of the mental healthcare system.”
The message is that where, decades ago, a common police complaint was that “we’re not social workers,” modern cops must be. So, get on with it.
Postmedia News Christie Blatchford | July 24, 2014 | Last Updated: Jul 24 2:23 PM ET