Toronto Police Service has launched a voluntary information database that they hope will equip officers with pertinent information about vulnerable people they may encounter in a crisis.
The Vulnerable Persons Registry is open to anyone, although it is geared toward people who have lost cognitive ability or may not be able to communicate with officers, particularly in a crisis.
The information – which could include behaviours that officers might encounter, de-escalation strategies and emergency-contact details – can be entered either by the registered person themselves, or a caregiver or power of attorney.
Similar registries exist across the country, although in many cases they are specifically for people with autism.
Esther Rhee, the national program director at Autism Speaks Canada and co-chair of the Toronto Police Disabilities Consultative Committee, said officers do receive training around autism – but would benefit from approaching a call with specific contextual information about individuals.
For example, she notes that one-third of individuals on the spectrum are prone to wandering.
“And so knowing that an individual has a special interest in water versus trains, let’s say, or construction sites, would really help an officer know to say, ‘Hey, let’s go check out the local swimming pool,’ versus the subway, or the construction site down the street,” Ms. Rhee said.
“Another example would be if an individual is non-verbal,” she said. Knowing that ahead of time could help an officer better prepare a communication strategy.
Toronto Police Sergeant Paul Jones said the registry will also help officers de-escalate potentially volatile or stressful situations.
For example, if an officer knows that lights or sounds can be a trigger for someone they have received a call about, they can adjust their response accordingly.
Some people are not comfortable with an officer standing close to them. Sgt. Jones recalled cases where people were stressed out by the sound of his radio.
“[Knowing] these sorts of things help us to interact with the person in a calmer, more reasoned way, so that they feel a little more comfortable,” he said.
Sgt. Jones said one of the first submissions they received Wednesday was from someone who wanted them to know they are struggling with an addiction.
The registry was established in consultation with the police service’s Disability Community Consultative Committee, which includes representatives from a number of organizations including Autism Speaks Canada, March of Dimes, the Brain Injury Society of Toronto, the Learning Disabilities Association of Toronto District, Vision Loss Rehabilitation Ontario and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
Jennifer Chambers, executive director of the CAMH-funded Empowerment Council, which advocates for patients, said she has mixed feelings about the registry. She does believe it could be beneficial for some people and cases – but worries that some may feel compelled to participate. “Sometimes things that are voluntary are not coercion free,” she said.
She also worries that if someone with mental-health issues does not input their information in the registry, police may not feel the need to be as cautious or empathetic. She instead stresses the need for police to use “universal caution.”
Sgt. Jones said police worked with the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s office to ensure any potential privacy concerns were addressed. He stressed that the information will not be shared with other agencies, or show up on the Canadian Police Information Centre registry (used for background checks etc.)
The information will stay in their database for two years at a time, and can be removed at any time, he said – “no questions asked.”
“We’re the custodians of the data, but really the person who has entered it is the one in control of it," he said. “We’ll do whatever they want with it.”