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People take part in an 'abolish the police sit in' to mark Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in Texas, two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves elsewhere in the United States, amid nationwide protests against racial inequality in Toronto on June 19, 2020.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

The board overseeing Toronto’s police force heard a blistering critique of policing in the city during the first day of a virtual town hall scheduled to stretch over four days to accommodate overwhelming community interest.

The Toronto Police Services Board said it launched the town halls in the wake of protests over the police-involved deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Toronto woman who died in May after her family called for mental-health assistance, and several unarmed Black Americans.

The protests have prompted cities across the continent to reassess the cost of policing in dollars and lives. While several cities in the U.S. have vowed to divert sizable chunks of police funding to mental health, housing, community anti-violence groups and other social programs, Canadian cities have been more reticent.

The town hall comes the week after city council voted down a motion to carve 10 per cent from the police budget and dedicate it toward social programs.

“I truly don’t understand why we’re holding this virtual town-hall meeting when you’ve all just increased the police budget by $15 million, while we’ve been chanting to defund the police,” said one speaker, Jazzmin, who did not provide her last name. “Will this meeting actually change anything? Are you finally listening?”

Several speakers echoed the sentiments of Black Lives Matter and other groups in demanding a reallocation of 50 per cent of the $1.2-billion Toronto police budget toward social services.

Board members sat through the 35 citizen speakers with few questions, except after a speech from one Torontonian, Rachel Bromberg, who pitched a civilian-led mental-health emergency service.

The project is called the Reach Out Response Network. It is modelled partly on CAHOOTS, a 30-year-old program in Eugene, Ore., that dispatches medics and mental-health workers to people in crisis instead of armed police.

CAHOOTS costs the city of Eugene, population 170,000, about $2.1-million a year to operate. Ms. Bromberg said the program saves $8.5-million a year in public safety money and spares about $14-million in hospital visits.

She said Toronto should opt for a model that blends aspects of CAHOOTS and the Gerstein Centre. The latter offers mobile crisis teams in Toronto staffed by peer-support workers who’ve experienced many of the challenges they’re sent to treat.

“A person who is in so much pain that they want to die, doesn’t need an officer with a gun, a taser and handcuffs showing up at their door,” she said. “That person needs a gentle, compassionate, trauma-informed response by a well-trained mental-health expert.”

Currently, Toronto Police respond to 30,000 mental health calls a year – nearly a third of which are suicide calls.

Ms. Bromberg would like to see the project integrated into the 911 dispatch system and able to respond 24/7. Ideally, the service would also have a dedicated three-digit number such as 811, to ensure callers receive a non-police response.

“As a Black male who’s 6 foot 4, officers can see me as an intimidating presence,” said Asante Haughton, co-founder of Reach out Response Network, who’s experienced mental-health challenges. “We need to reduce the potential for things to go awry as a result of racial profiling or racial discrimination when people might get hurt when they really need to get help.”

Mayor John Tory and Councillor Michael Ford both expressed an interest in meeting and discussing the project further.

In all, 340 people have signed up to speak during the four days of the town hall.

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