Advocates hope Toronto’s plan to fund mental health crisis teams will be copied across Canada

SASKATOON — An advocacy group hopes other Canadian cities will emulate Toronto’s upcoming pilot program to send trained civilians to mental health crises instead of police in some cases.

The strong push to avoid having police respond to these calls is being driven by high-profile incidents, such as the police killings of D’Andre Campbell in Brampton, Ont. and Sheffield Matthews in Montreal; as well as the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto.

Rachel Bromberg, co-founder of the Reach Out Response Network, is working with Toronto city staff to create a framework for a non-police, mental health crisis response service.

“We’re really all about the right person with the right tools is responding to the right situation and police just have different tools in their toolbox for responding to people’s crises,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday.

“But they’re not really well-suited for dealing with, for example, a person thinking about suicide.”

Bromberg said tactics police use for violent crime are, in fact, the opposite of what should be done for non-violent mental health-related calls.

The pilot program will deploy four crisis support teams in different parts of Toronto to respond to the roughly 30,000 calls to 911 related to mental health crises annually. A third of those calls are related to suicide and are likely be among some of the calls civilian responders deal with, Bromberg said.

Although the details of program are being finalized.

Instead of police officers with guns responding to those calls, Bromberg is advocating for emergency responders with experience in risk assessment who are able to help someone with a safety plan and connect them to community resources.

“These tools would not be useful, for example, in apprehending a bank robber. They’re just very different skill sets,” Bromberg said.

In early 2022, pilot programs will be launched in several parts of Toronto as well as a dedicated program for the city’s Indigenous community. The services will cost between $7.2 and $7.9 million annually and run until 2025.

And if it’s a success, the program will be fully implemented the following year.

While some Canadian cities have emergency mental health responders, none of them are dispatched through 911. But Bromberg said this could change not only in Toronto but also Vancouver and Ottawa, which she said are considering establishing similar services.

The practice of having non-police mental health emergency service being dispatched by 911 is the norm in some U.S. cities such as Austin, Texas; Denver, Co., and Olympia, Wash. But the longest-standing service is in Eugene, Ore.

That service, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) has been running since 1989 and has never had a staff member be seriously injured or killed on the job. In 2019, they responded to 24,000 calls. And now, at least several hundred cities in the U.S. have been reaching out to them to determine if they can replicate the program.

“I would say the key to CAHOOTS success is that they built really strong relationships with the different stakeholders over a very long period of time,” Bromberg said.

The group responds through the same 911 dispatch system as police do, with the two only occasionally co-responding to calls. “Police trust that if CAHOOTS is going on the scene by themselves, that they’re able to handle it. And that working relationship is really key to that success,” she said.

Bromberg sees CAHOOTS as the gold standard when it comes to what Toronto could achieve. Her group is strongly urging Toronto’s program, which is still being developed, to similarly have mental health responders integrated through the 911 dispatcher.

“That is something we see as essential to the success of this model and that’s something city staff have been very positive about,” she said. “But the details are still being worked out.”

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