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Group calls for mandatory crisis intervention training for Ontario police officers

Last Updated Oct 25, 2017 at 5:07 pm EDT

Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi attends a news conference in Hamilton, Ont. on Jan. 31, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

An advocacy group is calling on the Ontario government to make crisis intervention and de-escalation training mandatory for those studying to become police officers in the province.

The Toronto chapter of the Innocence Project made the request Wednesday, asking the province to immediately amend the Police Services Act in what it said is an effort to address police shootings of people with mental illness.

The proposed amendment would make such training a requirement of the Ontario Police College, which trains and certifies police recruits once they have been hired.

The group — which made the request after working with Joanne MacIsaac, a woman who lost her brother in a fatal police shooting — said it plans to launch a constitutional challenge over the issue if the province doesn’t take action before Jan. 2 of next year.

“We understand that reforming the law of policing is a difficult and complex task,” the group said in a letter detailing its request. “However, there is no reason to delay addressing this issue of fatal interactions between the police and mentally ill individuals, as the solution to this problem is a simple freestanding amendment to the Act that can be effected immediately.”

The group delivered its letter to Attorney General Yasir Naqvi and Community Safety Minister Marie-France Lalonde.

Naqvi said the province is already working to update the Police Services Act but did not say whether that would include the change requested by the group.

“Part of the work is looking at training, looking at how police interact with people with mental health issues and techniques and strategies around de-escalation,” he said.

Lalonde, who noted that changes to the Police Services Act would be introduced “very soon,” said the government’s ultimate goal is to reduce and prevent interactions between vulnerable people and police.

“I know that police officers are increasingly interacting with vulnerable individuals, often with complex mental health issues,” she said in a statement. “Police training needs to modernize to reflect this reality. Police officers need the necessary tools to diffuse crisis situations and protect both themselves and their communities.”

Lalonde also said all police officers in the province receive use-of-force training that includes de-escalation techniques.

In its letter, the group said more than 30 coroner’s inquests since the late 1970s have made recommendations for improved training in interacting with people with mental illness, as have several government-commissioned reports.

“This government has a choice between engaging in several years of litigation, or adding several words to an existing statute,” it says.

“There need not be more waiting; there need not be more patience. The issue can be dealt with now. The government has failed to carry through on its promises to us. The lives of Ontarians are at stake.”

Making this training mandatory at the college level is the only way to ensure it is delivered in a standardized way, the group says.