Toronto to launch pilot that sends crisis workers, not police, to some calls

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TORONTO — A pilot project that sends crisis-support workers instead of police to certain 911 calls in Toronto is set to begin sometime next year, following widespread calls for police reform.

The project, approved by city council this week, will send workers specializing in mental health and crisis intervention to some non-emergency, non-violent calls, such as those involving people in crisis and requests for wellness checks.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said the intent of the service is for mental-health professionals to be the first responders for such calls.

"Toronto Police respond to about 30,000 calls from people in crisis every year," he said.

"This change will not only see mental health professionals applying their skills and training to incidents where that will be a better answer, but it can also allow police to focus on core policing priorities such as violent crime."

The city plans to begin hiring and training for the program this year but it won't be fully operational until at least 2022.

The project will be implemented in three areas of the city where calls for people in crisis are the highest, as well as in Indigenous communities.

The new service is a response to demands for changes to Toronto policing that were made last June, the city said.

"These are the first important steps along the road to having many of these calls for people in distress answered by professionals other than the police," Tory said.

Last summer, the death of a woman who fell from her balcony after officers were called sparked protests calling for improvements to how Toronto police deal with those experiencing mental-health crisis.

The province's police watchdog cleared officers who were in Regis Korchinksi-Paquet's home of wrongdoing in her death, but her family called it a flawed investigation.

A city in the U.S. has implemented a community-based crisis intervention service that has seen success.

In Eugene, Ore., a service called CAHOOTS pairs medics with mental health specialists who are dispatched to calls.

Staff handle a range of calls related to mental health and substance use, including welfare or wellness checks, as well as primary assessments and wound care.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2021.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Denise Paglinawan, The Canadian Press