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Harnett: use of force recommendations "fantastic"

Canadian Press THE CANADIAN PRESS

TORONTO – A report by a former Supreme Court of Canada justice into the use of lethal force by Toronto police has made 84 sweeping recommendations which, if implemented, would mean far more training and support for officers dealing with those in crisis.

The probe by Frank Iacobucci was sparked by the killing of a teenager on an empty streetcar last summer.

Its release comes just days before the one-year anniversary of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim's death and amid a lawsuit by the teen's family against the officer who shot him and another who Tasered him as he lay dying.

In the public outrage that followed Yatim's death, Toronto police Chief Bill Blair had asked Iacobucci last August to take a broad look at how officers interact with people in crisis and to come up with recommendations.

``This is not a report that will gather dust,'' Blair said today after its release. ``This is a report that will gather momentum.''

Among Iacobucci's many recommendations is a suggestion that Toronto police create a comprehensive police and mental health oversight body to help share health care information with police, including a voluntary registry of vulnerable people.

The 346-page report also recommends the force ``more proactively and comprehensively educate officers'' on mental health resources and give every officer a point of contact in the mental health system they can contact for advice.

The report suggests Toronto police consider conducting a pilot project to assess the potential for expanding Tasers to a selection of front line officers who would have to be equipped with body-worn cameras while carrying them.

It additionally recommends that the force issue body-worn cameras to all officers who may encounter people in crisis to ensure greater accountability and transparency.

There are also recommended changes to the city's Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, which currently only operate within limited hours.

Iacobucci recommended having the teams notified of every call involving a person in crisis and also recommended the police force develop a pilot Crisis Intervention team to complement the program, with the aim of being able to provide a specialized response to those in crisis around the clock.

Iacobucci explained his use of the term ``person in crisis,'' noting that the term ``gives primacy to the person and focuses on their experience of a crisis in the specific moment that the police are involved without drawing conclusions or making assumptions about the specific reasons for that experience.''

A number of recommendations focus on the selection of police officers, with Iacobucci suggesting all new constables required to compete a mental health first aid course.

He also recommended that while hiring, preference be given to applicants who have community services experience, past involvement related to the mental health community and higher education.

The review involved more than 100 interviews and the analysis of more than 1,200 documents, as well as submissions from the public. It also examined Ontario coroners' inquest recommendations and interviewed experts from the U.S. and the U.K. to seek best practices.

Iacobucci noted that his report was not about laying blame on anyone but rather was meant to consider how lethal outcomes can be prevented in the future.

``The premise of the report is that the target should be zero deaths when police interact with a member of the public,'' he said.

“These are fantastic recommendations,” says Toronto criminal lawyer Aaron Harnett.

“If implemented, and that is always a big ‘if,’ they will improve policing in general,” says Harnett. “The movement towards ‘officer cams’ for example is something many of us in the defence bar have been hoping to see for years.”

Harnett adds that “police with valuable pre-policing  real-life experience make superior officers in many different ways, not just with regards to interacting safely with the mentally ill.”

© 2014 The Canadian Press

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