City earmarks $12M this year to develop new approach to gun violence, mental health calls | CBC News

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After one of the most violent years in the city’s recent history Toronto is ready to implement its 10-year “community safety and well being” plan — and it’s prepared to spend $12 million during the first year, pending city council’s approval.

Two reports going before Mayor John Tory’s executive committee next week outline the 2022 work plan for the SafeTO strategy, which focuses on creating an alternative model for crisis response, and shifting the focus from reacting to violent incidents to preventing them.

The plan includes launching four pilot projects where non-police crisis teams will respond to mental health calls; developing a gun violence reduction strategy; providing more support to victims of violence; and improving data sharing across city agencies.

Tory commended the reports at a news conference Wednesday.


“It’s a lot better to prevent crime from happening than it is to react after that crime has already happened,” Tory said. “That lies at the root of this report.”

The reports highlight the city’s ongoing effort to expand the definition of what constitutes community safety beyond crime and policing. They come after a year in which Toronto saw 85 homicides, many of which involved guns, and after public pressure to remove police from the front-line response for people in mental health distress.

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Mental health crisis teams

The centrepieces of the SafeTO plan are the pilot projects where new “mobile crisis teams” will be dispatched to non-emergency calls, including calls for people in distress and wellness checks, in four communities with some of the highest rates of such calls.

In 2020, Toronto Police Service (TPS) officers attended 33,059 “person in crisis” calls, according to one of the city reports, the most ever in one year.

City council approved the pilots in February 2021. Work began in the wake of global protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism, and the 2020 deaths of Regis Korchinski-PaquetEjaz ChoudryD’Andre Campbell and others during interactions with police sparked calls for change across the Greater Toronto Area.

The projects, for which the city is earmarking $8.5 million, will be piloted in four areas of the city, and four agencies have been selected to lead them: TAIBU Community Health Centre in northeast Toronto, Gerstein Crisis Centre in the downtown east side, Canadian Mental Health Association Toronto in northwest Toronto, and 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations in on the west side of downtown.

The former two are expected to be in place in March 2022 and the latter two by June 2022.

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Mayor John Tory says the city’s new community safety plan is based on the idea that working with the community to prevent crime is better than reacting to it. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Susan Davis, executive director of the Gerstein Crisis Centre, said having workers who are sensitive to the complexities of poverty, mental health and substance use will help people in crisis be more comfortable seeking help.

“What we want for people is for them to be able to see this response as something that will respond to them and that they can access in a way that is is non-threatening,” said Davis. 

The city says it has finalized a call triaging process where certain 911 calls will be redirected to the 211 phone service, an existing line dedicated to connecting callers to community, social, non-clinical health and related government services.

“As the pilot’s dispatch partner, 211 will be responsible for triaging and dispatching calls to the mobile teams, and as appropriate, connecting inbound callers to supportive services and programs for follow-up supports,” the report says.

The response teams will be made up of community health nurses, crisis counsellors, harm reduction workers and peer support workers trained in de-escalation, first aid and overdose response. 

Toronto police are also working on a call diversion program that will embed a mental health crisis worker in the force’s communications centre to divert police resources away from mental health calls.

If the pilot programs are successful, the city plans to launch the new crisis support service city-wide in 2025, if not sooner.

Tackling gun violence

As part of its ongoing response to gun violence, the city says it will begin work on a “comprehensive, multi-sector gun violence reduction plan.” The strategy will be developed through collaboration among a number of different city departments, Toronto police, Toronto Public Health, community organizations, and other levels of government.

Between 2017 and 2020, there was a 39 per cent increase in firearm-related incidents, the city says.

The city plans to expand a program that helps Toronto residents who have been impacted by violence and traumatic incidents, including shootings, stabbings and gang-affiliated activity. More staff with a variety of specialities will be available to be deployed faster to communities impacted by gun violence, according to the report.

Toronto Police display guns seized during a series of raids in July 2018. The City of Toronto says work will begin this year on developing a ‘comprehensive’ gun violence reduction strategy. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The city will establish the Toronto Office to Prevent Gun Violence to co-ordinate gun policy and prevention measures.

“The creation of the office will directly respond to community requests for stronger collaboration and leadership across the wide spectrum of violence prevention, intervention, interruption, and response and recovery efforts,” the report says.

A new SafeTO Data Centre will share and analyze information collected by multiple city departments to help with developing policies and planning services, the city says.

The city has earmarked $1.4 million for these initiatives in 2022.

After members of the executive committee vote on the reports, they will go before the full city council in February.

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