Community needs better system to respond to those in crisis, Toronto police board member says

The community needs better options than calling police to respond to mental health crises, a Toronto police board member said Friday.

Uppala Chandrasekera, who’s also co-chair of the board’s mental-health advisory committee, said people need community-based options that include social workers, peer workers and mental health and addictions workers.

“Our system is broken when our only option is to send the police into a mental health crisis situation,” Chandrasekera said at the Toronto Police Services Board meeting that was streamed online.

“Would we send a police officer to respond to a heart attack or an asthma attack? It’s a disservice to our community and it’s a disservice to the police when the police officer becomes the only option to call during a mental health crisis.”

READ MORE: Toronto’s police board postpones considering anti-Black racism report in order to hold consultations

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Chandrasekera said she lives two blocks from where Regis Korchinski-Paquet lived — and died — in the city’s west end.

Korchinski-Paquet died in late May after falling from her high-rise balcony while police were in her home. Her family said they wanted her to go to a mental health hospital, and they have questioned the role of police in her death.

The province’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, is investigating.

Toronto’s police board was set to discuss Friday how officers respond to those in crisis, as well as anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.

READ MORE: Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s death reinforces need for major mental health and policing reforms, advocates say

But that was delayed until early July, when the board will hold a special town hall to discuss the issues with the public.

Police accountability and reform will also be on the agenda at that meeting.

There have been growing calls to defund the Toronto Police Service, and city council is set to debate policing reform at the end of the month.

Hundreds of protesters against anti-Black racism took part in a peaceful demonstration and a sit-in outside the service’s headquarters on Friday, which was also Juneteen — the American holiday that commemorates slavery being abolished. The event ended at Nathan Phillips Square.

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Protesters also painted the words “defund the police” in large, pink letters on College Street in front of the building.

Mayor John Tory, who also sits on the police board, said at Friday’s meeting that he agreed with Chandrasekera on responding to those in crisis.

“It cannot be taken that we have anything even close to the right sort of means of dealing with this,” Tory said.

“And we put a lot on to the police in terms of dealing with these mental health crises.”

READ MORE: 2 Toronto councillors put forward motion to defund police budget by 10%

Toronto police have said they respond to more than 30,000 mental health calls every year.

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“We are not giving to the people in crisis the support that should be coming largely and perhaps to a much greater extent, for example, from the health-care system as opposed to from policing,” Tory said.

Chandrasekera said that help is particularly needed for the city’s racialized communities.

“We need to build mental health support for and with our racialized communities, especially our Black and Indigenous communities,” she said.

— With files from Kamil Karamali and Nick Westoll

© 2020 The Canadian Press