When nurse Sivi Joachim and Const. Paul Regan arrived at Old City Hall one afternoon last month for a call, they saw a woman holding a large knife near the top of the front steps. She appeared to be in crisis, and was drawing a crowd of onlookers.
Regan said his first job was to make sure the scene was safe. It was Joachim who approached the woman.
"I needed to reassure her she was safe and she needed to reassure us that we were safe," Joachim, who works at St. Michael's Hospital, told CBC News.
"And once we established that we were able to have a dialogue about what exactly brought this person here today. That took a lot of time and trust."
Joachim was able to figure out the woman had a diagnosed illness, and about 15 minutes later, the pair say they were able to persuade her to drop the knife, in part by offering her a cigarette. Joachim said she was able to have a conversation with the woman and to connect her with the help she wanted through a local hospital.
It's calls like these that have become routine for Joachim and Regan, members of the Toronto Police Mobile Crisis Intervention Team (MCIT).
"With COVID, it's actually made things even busier. I mean, you can imagine people are more stressed out and fragmented, alone, suicidal," said Joachim.
In recent months, there's been a spotlight on calls to police about people in crisis that did not end peacefully, most notably the recent deaths of Ejaz Choudry, D'Andre Campbell — both shot and killed by police in the GTA — and the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Critics say there has to be a better way to respond to mental health calls so they don't end in tragedy.
Toronto Police Deputy Chief Peter Yuen says the force is working to expand the MCIT from 10 teams to at least 16 — which would allow one team for each division — as well as to extend their hours and provide them with more specialized training.
A report on the proposed expansion will be discussed at Thursday's Toronto Police Services Board meeting.
But not everyone is convinced an expansion is the right policy, and some, especially in the city's minority communities, are continuing to call for police to be removed altogether from crisis calls.
How it works now
The MCIT was created in 2000, pairing a mental health nurse with a police constable who has additional training in crisis calls. They're also partnered with several hospitals to connect patients with treatment.
"Most of our clients stay in the community and that's where they can best be helped with — whether it's connecting them to a new resource or maybe helping them to reconnect with an existing resource," said Leah Dunbar, the MCIT program manager at Michael Garron Hospital.
The MCIT is a secondary response — meaning they are not called directly. Instead, the teams are dispatched after a request from a responding officer.
Right now, there are 10 teams responsible for the 16 police divisions and they operate 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day.
Of the estimated 30,000 crisis calls a year, the MCIT attended 6,406 in 2019.
What will change
Yuen told CBC Toronto the hope is for each of the city's 16 police divisions to have its own team, and for the service to double the operating hours from 10 to 20 hours a day.
Other proposed changes include embedding mental health crisis workers with 911 communications teams to help connect callers with mental health services, rather than dispatching police or first responders.
Yuen added the Toronto Police Service is also working to change the uniforms of responding MCIT members.
"We have heard from agencies, our hospitals and most importantly, from our clients, that if they're suffering from a crisis, showing up in police uniform, it's going to escalate. So we are designing a much more approachable, softer uniform."
Yuen said they've also heard from the public that they need to do better when it comes to working with racialized communities in crisis situations.
"We've also got to enhance our training … with the major focus on anti-Black racism and Indigenous and racialized communities," said Yuen.
The goal is to have all changes in place by the end of March next year.
Meanwhile, Toronto police are still in talks with other levels of government on an alternative model of crisis response.
"Alongside with the expansion of the MCIT, we're looking at different models where police officers don't need to go to these calls," said Yuen.
But he said he believes there will still be instances where police will need to step in.
"Our goal is to minimize our attendance and to give these calls or share these calls with social agencies or agencies that could attend these calls alongside us."
In the interim, Yuen said the force wants to move ahead with the MCIT expansion.
'Police do not make us safer'
But that doesn't sit well with those who have been pushing for more significant reforms within local police forces, and to defund the police.
"The community has made it perfectly clear — the police do not make us safer or more secure in moments of crisis," said Syrus Marcus Ware, a core-team member with Black Lives Matter Toronto.
Ware said he's concerned that expanding the MCIT will lead to increased police involvement in mental health and crisis calls.
"I think If we wanted to just direct that money directly into the community to create community-led supports for folks experiencing emotional distress that would more directly respond to what the community is asking for."
John Sewell, a former Toronto mayor and the current coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, said he believes expanding the hours of the MCIT is a good idea, but since the team has to be called in by a responding officer, they're often not the first at the scene.
Sewell told CBC News it's within that period between the call and the team's arrival when someone can be shot or injured.
"The Toronto Police Services board has consistently refused to let the MCIT be the first responders," Sewell said.
"We've been asking for that for basically 10 years."