TORONTO -- While some balk at the thought of defunding police, academics and advocates are pointing to existing solutions.

For many, the multi-layered push to reallocate police funding or replace officers altogether is a difficult, but tangible step towards improving emergency response. Recent police incidents involving the violent treatment of people of colour following “wellness check” calls emphasize the need for change, says Black Lives Matter Canada co-founder Sandy Hudson.

“There’s got to be a better way,” she told over the phone from Los Angeles earlier this week. “There has got to be a better way of responding to a family or friend’s concern for their loved ones, rather than showing up with police officers who are armed and escalate a situation and escalate any fear that may already be present.”

More incidents have faced scrutiny since widespread protests against racism and police brutality in the wake of the May deaths of Minneapolis man George Floyd, who died after a white officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, and Toronto woman Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who died after falling from her balcony after police were called to take her to a psychiatric hospital. Recently released surveillance video of a January RCMP wellness check on a nursing student in British Columbia, who was injured and emotionally scarred during the incident, has also ignited outrage. Last weekend, 62-year-old Ejaz Choudry was killed in Mississauga, Ont., during another police "wellness check."


When Hudson laments about a “better way,” she knows they exist and in many cases are proven to work. She points to the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, which reroutes calls involving a mental health component to a team of crisis workers. She points to a “mental health ambulance” service launched in Sweden in 2017, which receives more than 100 calls a month and sends two mental health nurses and a paramedic in response.

These concepts are the same ones that Keith Adamson, a social worker with the University of Toronto, describes when he considers who should respond to wellness checks in Canada. 

“You may have a social worker, or two social workers, or a social worker and a nurse, a social worker and an ambulance worker. There are different models right now that exist throughout North America,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday. 

While some incidents with a mental health component may involve a weapon, it doesn’t mean that it should be met with a weaponized response. Nor does it mean that police will be excluded entirely, said Adamson. They may be required as second responders, but the key is that officers should listen to the first responders: “Once they arrive they take direction from the mental health professional, who has established a relationship with the person in crisis,” he said.

The new vision advocates and academics describe relies heavily on deescalation to prevent the incident from requiring police involvement. 


These strategies are long-established principles of social work. Explained by Adamson, deescalation — whether there is a weapon or not — looks like this:

“Giving the person in crisis your undivided attention, being non-judgmental, focusing on the person’s feelings, listening, allowing for silence, giving the individual in crisis space and time,” he said. “Crisis situations require that you develop rapport really quickly. Sometimes, ironically, that takes time and patience. And of course you should talk […] in a calm tone.”

In Canada, efforts have been made to train police forces in improved mental health response, but critics say it doesn’t always work and is sometimes outright ignored. A Toronto psychologist whose team drafted two reports for Ontario police in 2016 and 2017 about improving deescalation techniques recently told CTV News that the reports were all but shelved even though the techniques they outline have proven effective, particularly in Finland where Andersen and her team overhauled police mental health training.

“We've absolutely seen that it has the potential to save lives,” said University of Toronto Mississauga psychologist Judith Andersen. “Evidence-based training that I've done and my colleagues have done reduces lethal-force errors.”


For Adamson, there’s a “paradigm shift” that needs to happen in the way that police officers and the public at large think about a mental health crisis. In hospitals, group homes and homeless shelters where there is typically no police presence, the work of deescalating situations and building relationships is often handled by social workers, nurses and doctors. 

Some mental health units, such as Toronto’s Mobile Crisis Intervention Team, which citizens can’t call directly, won’t respond to situations that involve a weapon. An MCIT response includes a mental health nurse and a trained officer, but they won’t respond if it is deemed unsafe for the nurse.

This is where Adamson says there needs to be a shift in thinking: a person having a mental health crisis should be considered a “client” and these calls should become “client-centred.”

“The nurse is not in distress. The client is,” he said. “What about the client’s safety?”