Police chief discusses mental health and law enforcement
Dario Balca, CTV Toronto
Published Wednesday, January 27, 2016 9:39PM EST
CTV News Toronto anchor Ken Shaw sat down with Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders to talk about mental health in the city as part of Bell Let’s Talk Day.
Police officers respond to more than 20,000 calls involving people in crisis each year, making them a key player when it comes to mental health issues in the city.
Here are five highlights from what the chief had to say.
Mental health services for officers
Saunders began by pointing that mental health services for officers have significantly improved in his time as a cop.
In his early years with the police force, he said there was a “divorce” between officers’ mental health while on the job and in their personal lives.
“We have since learned the importance of post-traumatic stress and the impact that it has on our people,” Saunders said.
The police service he said, is working “aggressively” to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness.
“We make sure that our doors are always open,” he said, adding that police supervisors are trained to look for certain behaviour in officers who may have gone through a traumatic experience.
‘De-escalation isn’t just a word’
Saunders said one of his top priorities is improving the way officers deal with people in crisis.
“If they’re a patient, we have to go about it differently,” he said. “We have to look at de-escalation.”
The police service has added a third day of training that focuses on how officers engage with the community and how they deal with people who may have a mental illness, so that offices can defuse a situation without creating more anxiety and danger.
Saunders says the training is comprehensive and involves scenario-based exercises and follow-up to see if the sessions have really helped officers.
“De-escalation isn’t just a word. It is an action,” he said.
The issue of use-of-force and people in crisis were widely debated this week after Const. James Forcillo was found guilty of attempted murder in the 2013 shooting death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a Toronto streetcar.
Continuous improvement is key
While law enforcement has come a long way, Saunders said it is important police continue to improve when it comes to dealing with people who are suffering from mental illness or are in crisis.
“Every single day, officers are dealing with people in crisis, and you never know what is going to happen under those circumstances,” Saunders said, adding he is always interested in looking at how police performance can be improved.
Iacobucci report a step in the right direction
In 2014, Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci made 84 recommendations for changes to policing in Toronto, including the use of police psychologists in the recruiting and training phases.
The Toronto police later announced that 79 of the recommendations would be implemented, a move Saunders called a step in the right direction.
The police chief also praised the report for recognizing the problem of police response to people in crisis as a systemic issue.
“What I like about it is that Justice Iacobucci was very brave when he said that when a police officer is standing in front of a person in crisis, that there are so many other agencies that have failed that person,” Saunders said. “I agree with that.”
A personal interest in change
Saunders, who has an autistic son, said he often wonders how police would deal with his son if he were crisis.
“Having lived with an autistic son has taught me a lot,” he said, adding that he has a personal interest in improving how police deal with people in crisis.