“This program is not anti-police”: A member of the Toronto Community Crisis Service explains what it actually is

“This program is not anti-police”: A member of the Toronto Community Crisis Service explains what it actually is

Crisis worker Dawud Bramble on why the recently expanded mobile unit should be declared the city’s fourth branch of emergency services

A note to readers: this story discusses suicide.

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, demands to either defund or abolish police forces became ubiquitous—yet the specifics were often unclear. Were activists calling for cops to disappear completely, or simply for their ballooning budgets to be scaled back? Skeptics raised questions of their own: could a constabulary with fewer resources be expected to do its job well? And in the absence of police departments, which government agency would take charge of public safety?

Meanwhile, another group—policy experts, public-health workers and even a few high-ranking cops—made a more nuanced argument. The problem, according to these reformers, wasn’t police per se: it was the expansive role they were being asked to play. Cities need law enforcement, they argued, but officers today are often required to do jobs that don’t match their training or expertise. And city hall took notice.

In March of 2022, the City of Toronto introduced four non-police-led community crisis teams as a pilot project to respond to mental health emergencies in marginalized areas such as Rexdale, Jane and Finch, and Regent Park. The teams were dispatched nearly 6,000 times in their first year, and every call was resolved without violence. The project has been so successful that council is now scaling it up in hopes of serving all of Toronto by the summer of 2024. The ultimate goal is to make the Toronto Community Crisis Service the city’s fourth branch of emergency services.

Mental health worker Dawud Bramble has been serving in northwest Toronto as part of the crisis team from almost the beginning. To understand why the model works, he argues, you have to appreciate exactly what it is—and also what it isn’t. 

Related: “This idea that we’re living in divisive times is overstated”—A Q&A with Olivia Chow, the new mayor of Toronto

Who works on a mobile crisis team?
Trained mental health specialists. I’m a concurrent disorder specialist, which means I work in mental health and addiction. We’re also made up of peer-support workers, Indigenous specialists, youth-support specialists and nurses.

How many people respond to each call?
We work in pods of three. Two workers go out to meet the individual in crisis, and a third sits back at base. We have an app that shows the person at base where we are, and we communicate with walkie-talkies. The person at base does regular check-ins to ensure that we’re safe.

And what do you bring with you?
Our vans come filled with a multitude of things that an individual may need: comforters, track pants, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorants, hand sanitizers, snacks and bottles of water. When we show up, we can be identified by our green lanyards, green T-shirts, green sweaters or green hoodies.

The Toronto Community Crisis Service may soon be the city's fourth branch of emergency services.

What kinds of calls do you respond to?
Distressing or disorderly behaviour, addiction, thoughts of suicide and self-harm, domestic abuse—any kind of crisis. We also do wellness checks. Say, for instance, you’re outside in winter with no shoes, no jacket, no shirt. Somebody might see you and call us. We can check on how you’re doing. We can do a mental-status check or a suicide assessment. We can offer to take you to the hospital or to a shelter bed.

What if you go up to somebody for a wellness check and they tell you to get lost?
We’re a consent-based program. A person may say, “I don’t need your help,” but at least we checked in, right? A lot of times, though, when a person says, “Get away from me,” we will then ask, “Do you need a bottle of water or a snack?” You’d be surprised by how quickly the person changes tone. Then they may come to the van. Within two minutes, they may start talking about something else—how they need help finding permanent housing, say, or a referral to a GP or a psychiatrist.

Would you ever force someone to engage with you against their will?
Only if the person is a potential harm to themselves or to others.

You mentioned referrals to psychiatric or medical care. What other services do you offer?
Referrals to addiction care, counselling and employment services. If somebody is having suicidal thoughts, we do a risk assessment, come up with a safety plan and refer them to different suicide programs within the Canadian Mental Health Association or the Toronto Community Crisis Service. Sometimes, though, all people need is a chat. The other day, I met with an individual who was depressed and lonely. He played a lot of soccer in the African country he was from, but he didn’t have many friends here. I told him about leagues in Toronto that he could play in. He was so happy just to have the opportunity to play soccer again.

What’s the biggest public misconception about your team?
That the program is anti-police. It’s not. We go with them on a lot of calls, especially if the call is of a violent nature.

So the program is not police-led but not necessarily police-free?
That’s right.

How do you figure out whether a job is best suited to the crisis service or the cops?
The call usually comes through either 911 or 211. That’s when the dispatcher will ask about weapons, erratic behaviour and thoughts of suicide. Then they’ll decide what kind of response is necessary. Sometimes the police get called in, but when they arrive, they realize they aren’t needed. Then they leave it to us.

Have you ever arrived at a scene without police backup only to realize that the threat of violence was more acute than you thought?
I had a call like that a couple of weeks ago. The individual told his mom to get out of the house, so she went to hide in the car. She wanted us to check in on her son, to make sure he was okay. We didn’t know how elevated the risk was until we knocked on the door. He was in our face—very upset, threatening. Luckily, we were able to contact the police, who showed up quickly. We go into a lot of situations not knowing exactly what to expect.

Do you have self-defence training?
We do physical training and crisis-intervention training, which basically teaches you to move someone’s hand or body, without causing harm, as a means of self-protection.

But you never know when things are going to go off the rails. Why not have the police present as backup on every call, in case things get dangerous?
People sometimes request that no police show up. Certain communities have preconceived notions of what the police are about. So the fear of sharing things—or the fear of possible legal consequences—creates a block. We don’t want individuals to feel threatened. People need to know we’re there to support them without judging them or taking them to jail.

I would imagine that drug addiction is one area where people are hesitant to seek help from police. Are there others?
We get a lot of domestic abuse calls, which can be related to mental health. Abuse could be happening because a person is not taking their medication and they’re experiencing auditory hallucinations. A voice in their head could be telling them to hit their partner. If the police get involved, that individual could be apprehended and locked up, but this approach would not give them the help they need. The problem, in such an instance, isn’t criminality; it’s medication compliance. In situations like these, the individuals who are the victims of domestic violence often don’t want the police involved. They want to protect the person they’re with.

Can you give me another example?
Once we got a call from a mother who was worried about her son committing suicide. He was on the balcony, threatening to jump. The mom was adamant that she didn’t want police present. The reason: he was out on bail. She was the surety, and as part of the bail conditions, the two of them weren’t supposed to be in the same space. So he was technically violating the terms of his bail, which could get him incarcerated. But she was like, “I need to be here to make sure he doesn’t jump.” In the end, we took him to the hospital, and she came along.

I get the argument for leniency. But we have laws for a reason. If somebody is doing illegal drugs or committing domestic violence or violating the terms of their bail, isn’t it the city’s job to enforce the law and punish the offence?
That’s not how harm reduction works. The police mean well, and they want a society where people are law abiding. But punishing people or telling people that what they’re doing is wrong doesn’t always make them stop doing it. It creates a divide where people feel unable to seek help.

You’re saying that, in a more punitive society, people aren’t more law abiding; they’re more secretive.
Yes. And getting your mental health in check shouldn’t always come with legal risk.

Fundamentally, it seems that this whole project is about differentiation—making fine-grained distinctions between types of emergencies. Fair?
Totally. You want firefighters for fire, police for criminal cases, paramedics for physical health and mobile crisis teams for mental health. Everybody has different needs. Our job is to meet people where they are.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.