Building a new response to 911 distress calls in Toronto

“For me, it was very clear that having officers as first responders for a mental health crisis was simply not working, and many times, was escalating a situation”
– Asante Haughton

“When someone is in crisis, they are already feeling afraid, overwhelmed, out of control. They don’t need an officer with a gun and handcuffs showing up.”

-Rachel Bromberg

If you’re interested in contributing to an initiative approach that is revisioning how services respond to 911 distress calls in Toronto then you can.

The article below from Toronto Star  outlines how Rachel Bormberg and Asante Haughton are leading an initiative to do just that.

reach out and response network is hosting a series of consultations that you can participate in

Reach Out and Response Network

Upcoming Town Halls – Save the Dates!

We need your feedback! We are hosting several town halls to help us develop our proposal to the City.

      • The Service Users town hall is on Thursday, August 27 at 6 p.m. Register here.
      • The Service Providers town halls will be on Saturday, August 29 at 2 p.m. and Tuesday, September 1 at 6 p.m. Register here.
      • The Lawyers and Legal Advocates town hall is on Thursday, September 3 at 6 p.m. Register here.
      • The Family Members town hall is on Saturday, September 5 at 2 p.m. Register here.


These mental health advocates are working on an alternative to police intervention when someone is in crisis. They say ‘all of a sudden’ people are interested

Asante Haughton knows all too well what it’s like to call police during a mental health crisis. He’s reached out a dozen times — sometimes to get help for his mother, other times himself.

Just one of those times, it was “maybe” helpful to have armed officers show up at the door, says Haughton, who has spoken openly about his anxiety and depression and whose mother has experienced significant mental health challenges.

The other times, police presence ratcheted up tension and created a sense of fear, especially as a Black family, says Haughton. He often felt his concerns weren’t considered real or serious.

“For me, it was very clear that having officers as first responders for a mental health crisis was simply not working, and many times, was escalating a situation,” Haughton, a mental health advocate and youth worker, said in an interview.

Many others are now coming to the same conclusion amid uproar over the police-involved deaths of Black and Indigenous people in a mental health crisis — including Toronto city council and the Toronto police board.

Recent weeks have seen protesters marching through the streets decrying the local police shootings of 62-year-old Ejaz Choudry in June and 26-year-old D’Andre Campbell in April, both shot dead by Peel police while in mental distress, as well as the death of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from her High Park highrise in the presence of police in May.

The deaths are all under investigation by Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit.

In response, Toronto city council in June started a process that will lead to a non-police-led response to mental health crisis calls, something members of the Toronto police board have said they support.

“We all need to ask ourselves, ‘Why don’t we have a better option?’ Our system is broken when our only option is to send the police into a mental health crisis situation,” Uppala Chandrasekera, then-member of the Toronto police board, said at a June meeting.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s largest psychiatric facility, has also called for removing officers from mental health emergencies, something former Toronto police chief Mark Saunders, whose resignation came into effect Friday, said his officers would support. Each year, Toronto police respond to about 30,000 mental health-related calls.

“We readily admit that if others step up to the plate with a sustainable plan and system, then that means that there is less for us to do, more for us to focus on what we really are trained to do,” Saunders said in a recent interview with the Star.

Spurred through tragedy, the sudden interest in developing an alternative is what Haughton calls “unfortunate serendipity.” For years, he and other mental health advocates have been calling for a non-police response to mental health crisis calls.

“All of a sudden, people got interested — politicians got interested in actually implementing these changes,” said Rachel Bromberg, who has worked in the mental health realm seven years.

Bromberg and Haughton met as employees at Toronto’s youth mental health organization Stella’s Place. They have since founded the Reach Out Response Network, a coalition of stakeholders in Toronto aiming to build a civilian-led mental health emergency service — one that would be rapid response, and available throughout the city 24/7.

“When someone is in crisis, they are already feeling afraid, overwhelmed, out of control. They don’t need an officer with a gun and handcuffs showing up,” Bromberg said.

“What they need instead is a mental health expert, who they can trust, who can help them calm down. Someone who can help them feel safer.”

They’ve since attracted nearly 100 volunteers, some of whom are researching best practices. The network has since begun hosting consultations for specific populations, including for homeless Torontonians and Black and Indigenous communities.

“We really want to get those perspectives, get those folks as involved as possible in building this,” Bromberg said.

The aim is to help understand what community members want and need — knowledge that can then help the city design the best possible emergency response system. Bromberg and Haughton hope to partner with city decision makers to help lay the groundwork.

They’ve swiftly begun that work. Recent weeks have seen a flurry of meetings with the Toronto police board, the city manager’s office, and councillors who “a year ago were just not interested,” Bromberg said.

Educating decision-makers about models that have worked is a central goal. A leader in the field is the CAHOOTS program (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) in Eugene, Oregon. Founded in 1989, the model sees a mental health professional paired with a nurse or a paramedic to respond to crises involving mental illness, addiction or homelessness — calls that range from suicide threats to conflict resolution. Neither staff member carries a weapon.

The program is embedded within the 911 system; dispatchers determine whether a police response is necessary, or if a CAHOOTS team is better equipped to deal with the call. Occasionally, the mental health team will request police backup, but that rarely occurs. Last year, out of approximately 24,000 calls handled by CAHOOTS, backup was only requested 250 times, according to a recent report released by the White Bird Clinic, the organization that operates CAHOOTS.

Last year, CAHOOTS handled about 20 per cent of the city’s 911 calls, and it’s estimated the program has saved $8.5 million in public safety spending per year, according to the report.

Bromberg and Haughton have also been studying other crisis response models. Last year, Bromberg co-founded the International Mobile Services Association, a network connecting people across Canada and the U.S. who have built or want to create a civilian-led mobile crisis service.

They have been learning what’s already out there and determining best practices. They recently tapped into this network to conduct a survey in response to what Bromberg says is the top question they get: what happens if a mental health call turns violent?

According to the results of that scan, which included gathering data from seven established programs across North America, injuries to staff are exceedingly rare, and when any occurred, they were nearly always minor. For example, during the 31 years CAHOOTS has existed, they have never had a serious injury or death of a staff member or a client, Bromberg said.

Bromberg and Haughton have been thinking a lot about why there is a presumption that mental health calls necessarily mean the risk of violence. Their theory: that having police respond to mental health crisis promotes stigma and fear of people in crisis.

“And we hope that by removing (police), we’ll reduce stigma, and people will be able to see that mental health crisis isn’t a crime, it’s a health crisis,” she said.

Haughton stresses that his and Bromberg’s efforts are not intended to insult or demean police — “what we are here for is to recognize that police already have so much on their plates, and they really shouldn’t be a jack-of-all-trades service,” he said.

“Police should be responding to the things that most require police work. And the large majority — the very large majority — of mental health calls do not at all require police to be on the scene.”

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