Police are trained to deal with criminals, not mental health crises. We need separate response teams for these scenarios, and sooner rather than later.
Last week, Toronto started a consultation process for a mental health emergency response team that could be sent out in lieu of police. This is a step in the right direction that Canada should implement across the board.
With a mere six months training, police learn how to apprehend criminals and enforce the law, but dealing with people in the midst of a mental health crisis is something they often aren’t equipped for. And they shouldn’t have to be—there are professionals already qualified to help mentally distressed individuals.
In the event of an emergency, we need the option of calling on these professionals, rather than the singular option of 911. The number 211[CS1] , an Ontarian helpline designed for community, social, government, and health services—including mental health crises—is that option.
In some cases, having a police officer on the scene of a mental health crisis could exacerbate the situation even further, especially if the caller is already distressed. Others might simply not feel safe calling the police given recent tensions and the numerous unarmed shootings that catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s dangerous to send police officers into situations they’re ill-equipped for, but it’s also unnecessary when we have the resources for an alternative option. Funding mental health emergency response teams across Canada would not only provide a police alternative, but challenge the stigma that mentally-ill people are inherently dangerous and violent.
Police abolition discussions and research have existed for years. Toronto should look and listen to these scholars during consultations. While the city’s mental health response teams feel reactionary to recent Black Lives Matter protests—and could certainly have come sooner—it’s a positive thing they’re implementing them now.
Canada—Kingston included—should look to Toronto going forward and adapt their own response teams for mental health crises. In diverting funds to these teams, cities would be normalizing mental health crises—and supporting the people specifically trained to deal with them.
Police forces were created to enforce the law and deal with people who break it. They aren’t qualified for anything beyond that.
Mentally ill individuals aren’t criminals. Let’s stop acting like they are and develop crisis teams specifically designed to help them.
—Journal Editorial Board
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