Skip to main content

Toronto could take a tentative step towards adding a fourth emergency service agency when the mayor’s executive committee votes Wednesday on a plan that would divert mental-health calls from police to teams of civilian health workers.

Under the Toronto plan, the potential creation of a stand-alone mental-health crisis agency to join fire, paramedic and police services is years off. But the go-slow strategy would still place the city near the lead of Canadian municipalities struggling to counteract years of underinvestment in mental health that has resulted in police officers with little mental-health training becoming the default first responders to people in crisis.

“I don’t consider myself qualified to apprehend a bank robber – and [police] are not qualified for some of the difficult situations they’re being asked to address,” said Rachel Bromberg, a law student and mental-health worker who, along with fellow advocate Asante Haughton, founded Reach Out Response Network, a community group working to replace police with health workers on mental-health calls.

Ms. Bromberg said the creation of a fourth emergency service is already being undertaken in some American cities and should be the ultimate goal in Toronto as well.

A staff report going before the executive committee on Wednesday calls for the piloting of three mental-health response teams covering the city’s northwest, northeast and eastern downtown regions. A fourth team would focus on Indigenous residents.

The pilot project would cost $1.7-million to develop this year, increasing to over $7-million in 2022 when the teams are fully staffed. If all goes well, a full rollout for the rest of the city wouldn’t begin until 2026. City staff propose a collaboration with Toronto police to “triage and transfer” non-violent mental-health 911 calls, including wellness checks and requests for assistance for individuals in distress.

The service would be available through 911 and also an alternative line, such as 211.

The committee’s chair, Mayor John Tory, is entirely in favour of the proposal. “People call the police at three in the morning because there is no one else to call,” he told The Globe. “We’re going to set about remedying that.”

Toronto Police Service, Canada’s largest municipal force, responds to 30,000 mental-health calls a year. While the vast majority of those interactions end peacefully, many people struggling with mental illness have died during interactions with police. During a three-month period last year, at least five racialized people experiencing mental-health crises died during encounters with police: D’Andre Campbell, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Ejaz Choudry, Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi.

The Toronto plan, headed to a full council debate next week, is a far cry from fulfilling the demands of demonstrators who took to the city’s streets last spring and summer to protest those deaths and call for a large-scale reallocation of police spending towards housing, food security, public transit and other community services.

The pilot project would focus specifically on non-violent calls. Legislation requires police to respond to many other emergency calls.

“A death is a tragic but relatively rare occurrence in these cases,” Ms. Bromberg said. “What’s more common for a person in crisis is that the police show up and have no choice but to take them out of their home in front of the neighbours and take them to the ER in handcuffs. It’s an extremely traumatic experience that needs to end.”

For some, the timeline for the proposed plan is far too slow and the price tag too cheap.

“The pilot and the thinking that went into it looks very robust and careful,” said Rob Howarth, executive director of Toronto Neighbourhood Centres, a network of 26 community organizations. “But there are pieces missing – we need wraparound services [and] places for these people to go.”

Toronto Neighbourhood Centres authored a report earlier this year recommending the city shift $150-million currently used to police people experiencing mental illness towards civilian crisis-response programs, therapeutic short-term housing and other services.

Mr. Tory, who does not agree with shifting resources away from police, would however also like to see a more ambitious timeline to push the plan forward.

“I can assure you that if these pilots are successful when they’re in the community in 2023, I will doing my utmost to ensure, if I’m still here, to adopt the model much faster than any timeframe that remotely resembles 2026,” he said. “That is too far away.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.