TORONTO - Expanding the police use of Tasers, equipping officers with body-worn cameras and educating them on mental-health issues could help prevent deadly use of force when police deal with those in crisis, suggests a new report released Thursday.
The ideas were among 84 recommendations in a sweeping review of the Toronto Police Service's guidelines and practices conducted by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci.
"If reasonable steps can be taken to prevent even one unnecessary death, then those steps must be taken," Iacobucci said as he detailed his work. "It is clear that the police are part of the mental-health system. They have become the front-line mental-health workers."
Toronto police Chief Bill Blair commissioned the report last year after the death of a teenager shot by an officer on an empty streetcar sparked a public outcry over police use of force.
The release of the 346-page report came just days ahead of the one-year anniversary of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim's death, and amid a lawsuit by the teen's family against the officer who shot him and another who Tasered him as he lay dying.
"This is not a report that will gather dust. This is a report that will gather momentum," said Blair, adding that his force would move to implement the report's recommendations.
While the report was limited to making recommendations to the Toronto police, both Blair and Iacobucci said they wanted to share it with police forces across Canada.
"I hope those police forces will look at this report and find something of value to them," said Iacobucci.
That shared learning was exactly what Marianne MacIsaac hoped the report would instigate. The Ajax, Ont., resident's husband was shot to death by police last December after running out of the house naked following a seizure that came on while he had a high fever.
"The police officer shot my husband within 12 seconds," said MacIsaac, wiping away tears as she spoke.
"We just hope that this can roll over into other police forces in Ontario. We don't want to see another family go through what we did. It's heartbreaking and it was a senseless, preventable shooting."
It was clear Iacobucci had been impacted by the experiences of those like MacIsaac.
"You have to be robotic to not be moved by the human tragedy of this," he said, noting that the Toronto police force alone deals with 20,000 encounters with people in crisis in a year. "The complexity behind all of those stories was just quite moving and challenging."
Iacobucci and his team interviewed more than 100 people — including the families of individuals killed by police, as well as officers involved deadly encounters — and analysed more than 1,200 documents as well as submissions from the public. The team also looked at recommendations from previous Ontario coroners' inquests and the advice of experts from the U.S. and the U.K.
The report's numerous recommendations dealt with the intersection of police and the mental-heath system, police culture, training and supervision, use of force and the mental-health of officers themselves.
Iacobucci stressed that one of the key themes was the need for interdisciplinary co-operation.
"When analysing how to prevent deaths in such encounters, one must focus on how to prevent either the crisis itself or the encounter with the police from occurring in the first place, which involves improving the mental-health system among other things," said Iacobucci.
"A failure to de-escalate can arise from a number of causes, including lack of understanding by police regarding the level of risk posed by the person in crisis or a lack of knowledge or ability on how to de-escalate effectively."
While the report was seen as a positive step forward, advocates for people with mental illnesses expressed concern about a number of recommendations relating to expanded use of Tasers.
"We are not supporters of the use of Tasers, because we do not find that they are used as alternatives to lethal force," said Jennifer Chambers, co-ordinator of the Empowerment Council.
"We find that Tasers are used as intermediate methods and we favour, instead, an emphasis on de-escalation. But that being said, I feel the report really did emphasize de-escalation, so that was good news."
Iacobucci's report recommended Toronto police consider conducting a pilot project to assess the potential for expanding Taser access within the force. It also recommended the force advocate for a national study of the medical effects of Taser use and collaborate with other police services to establish a database with Taser-related information.
It also suggested the force issue body-worn cameras to all officers who may encounter people in crisis to ensure greater accountability and transparency.
Among the report's other recommendations is a suggestion that Toronto police create a comprehensive police and mental-health oversight body to help share health-care information, including a voluntary registry of vulnerable people.
It also recommends the force "more proactively and comprehensively educate officers" on mental-health issues and give every officer a point of contact in the mental-health system they can ask for advice.
The city's Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, which partner mental-health nurses with specially trained offers, should also be notified of every call involving a person in crisis, the report recommends, while calling for a Crisis Intervention Team that would provide a specialized response to those in crisis around the clock.
The report also focused on the recruitment of police officers, with Iacobucci suggesting all new constables be required to complete a mental-health first-aid course. He said preference should be given to applicants with community service experience, past involvement related to the mental-health community and higher education.
Iacobucci noted that his report was not about laying blame on anyone but rather was meant to consider how deadly confrontations can be prevented in the future.
"The premise of the report is that the target should be zero deaths when police interact with a member of the public," he said. "Above all, a person in crisis needs help."
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