An independent report aimed at reducing the Toronto Police Service’s use of lethal force against people in emotional crisis urges body-worn cameras and possibly tasers for first responders, but these and dozens of other sweeping recommendations are already raising questions about cost and privacy issues.
Former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, whom Chief Bill Blair asked to study the charged topic after an officer killed 18-year-old Sammy Yatim almost a year ago, unveiled 84 recommendations on Thursday.
“The premise of the report is the target should be zero deaths,” he said. “I believe the death of a fellow human being in these types of encounters is a failure for which blame, in many situations, cannot be assigned. But in these cases, it’s more likely the failure of the system.”
Mr. Iacobucci said he hoped to share the report with police forces across Canada. “I hope those police forces will look at this report and find something of value to them.”
Chief Blair called the report a “road map” that gives the force “a very clear sense of direction” to improve the way it handles the 20,000 calls involving emotionally disturbed people his officers respond to each year. He announced a committee to advise him on implementing the recommendations, naming members from hospitals, mental-health organizations and a civil liberties group.
“This is not a report that will gather dust. This is a report that will gather momentum,” he said.
The report urges a pilot project to study whether first responders – the front-line officers most likely to encounter people in crisis – should have tasers, which advocates say allow police to gain control of difficult situations without drawing their guns. Currently, only Toronto Police supervisors and tactical officers carry the devices.
However, in treading cautiously on the issue, Mr. Iacobucci recommended that officers who use tasers also be issued monitoring technology such as body-worn cameras. He also urged Toronto Police to advocate for studies on the medical effects of tasers, which detractors warn can be unsafe in certain circumstances, and help create a national database on their use.
Mr. Iacobucci’s recommendations on tasers and body-worn cameras are in line with Chief Blair’s position on the technologies, but will prove both expensive and controversial. The estimated cost of the report’s recommendations has not been tallied.
The city’s Police Services Board rejected a request from Chief Blair last fall for $320,000 to arm 184 front-line officers with tasers. On Thursday, chair Alok Mukherjee said the board is “open” to discussions about funding additional devices.
“What the board has been hesitant to do is to simply give it carte blanche to expand taser use,” Mr. Mukherjee said. “But the board will be very much interested in the kind of research that Justice Iacobucci recommends. He has identified some of the very same concerns that the board has.”
The report has also sparked debates about priorities. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which will sit on the advisory committee, supports body-worn cameras but is strongly opposed to expanding taser use, saying the additional money would be better spent boosting the number of mobile crisis intervention teams (MCIT), which consist of a police officer and nurse.
“We want to caution against any increased deployment. It has to be measured against the use of resources going towards increased MCITs,” said executive director Sukanya Pillay.
On the issue of body-worn cameras, the report calls on Toronto Police to issue the devices to all first responders to “ensure greater accountability and transparency for all concerned.” At the same time, it urges protocols to protect privacy and govern officers’ use of the technology.
Toronto Police are already planning a pilot project to test the use of body-worn cameras, which typically clip onto officers’ uniforms. The initiative is expected to begin in early 2015 and last at least a year.
Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, supports using the devices as long as they do not become a “management tool” for supervisors to eavesdrop on officers’ private conversations. “Let’s use it as an important tool. Don’t dilute it,” he said.
The recommendations come just a day before Chief Blair is to tell the board whether he wants to renew his contract, which expires next April. When asked whether he would be the chief to implement the report, he was coy in his response.
“Every member of the service has to be committed to the implementation of these recommendations, and the chief of police has the responsibility to provide that leadership. And I can assure you the chief of police will provide that leadership,” he said.
A spokesman for Mayor Rob Ford did not reply to a request for comment.
Mayoral candidate John Tory, meanwhile, called Mr. Iacobucci’s recommendations on tasers and cameras a “thoughtful, reasonable way” of implementing the equipment in the force.
On funding, he said: “I would really hope the provincial government would make a contribution to those pilot projects,” citing not only tasers and cameras, but also the 24-hour availability of mobile crisis intervention teams as “very important things that give life to Justice Iacobucci’s report.”
Rival candidate Olivia Chow said she supports Mr. Iacobucci’s recommendations on body-worn cameras, but voiced caution on tasers.
“We’ve seen tasers where there are some people that don’t handle it well. So we just have to be careful how we use it,” she said. “A pilot would be fine, but it needs to be tightly evaluated.”
In addition, the Iacobucci report recommends enhanced mental-health training for officers, allowing police to access people’s mental-health information in some circumstances and emphasizing the importance of de-escalating tense situations. As well, it urges expanding mobile crisis intervention teams, which are not available overnight and do not respond to incidents involving violences, and developing complementary police crisis intervention teams to provide a specialized 24-hour response to calls involving emotionally disturbed people.
Among the recommendations:
- Create a comprehensive police and mental health oversight body that includes emergency medical services and mental-health organizations. The committee would develop a protocol to allow police access to a person’s mental-health information in certain circumstances.
- Educate officers on available mental-health resources, and ensure all new officers go through a “mental-health first aid course”
- Develop a working group to study the role of police psychologists, including considering involving them in promotion decisions. Enforce mandatory “annual wellness visits” with a TPS psychologist for officers in their first two years on the job
- Make sure mobile crisis intervention teams (MCIT) are informed for every call involving “emotionally disturbed persons.” The teams consist of police officers and mental-health nurses, but are not available 24 hours a day. He also recommends expanding availability of the teams so that there is at least one MCIT unit per operational division and examine whether they can be provided 24 hours per day.
- Develop a “crisis intervention team” to complement MCIT to provide 24-hour crisis response
- Improve police culture, including pledging commitment to de-escalation, eliminating stereotypes and involving mental-health issues in training
- Give preference when hiring new constables to people who have community service or mental-health involvement, and include “experience with people in crisis” in the criteria for promotion decisions
- Appoint “mental-health champions” in each division: supervisors who have experience in resolving mental-health crises
- Create advisory committee to implement the report’s recommendations