Tory pledges more police on TTC but mental health advocates say more supports needed

Toronto Mayor John Tory announced Thursday there will be a stronger police presence on the TTC following recent attacks — but more mental health supports might be a bigger help, advocates say.

After two recent attacks on the subway system, Tory met with Toronto Police Chief James Ramer and TTC CEO Rick Leary before announcing an increase in “the visibility of police officers.”

Tory appeared to link the incidents to mental illness.

“Our discussion today did focus a great deal on mental health,” Tory wrote in a statement.

“TTC and Toronto Police officials made it very clear just how often these types of incidents on the TTC can be traced back to mental health and addiction issues,” he added.

On Sunday night, a woman was injured when she was pushed onto the subway tracks at Bloor-Yonge station. Late Tuesday, a man was rushed to hospital after he was stabbed on the platform at St. George station. Police have made arrests in both cases.

But while an increased police presence in response to violence can be helpful, it’s not what people with mental health and substance abuse problems need, said Susan Davis from the Gerstein Crisis Center in Toronto

“We want to make sure we’re not lumping the two things together — violent incidents with mental health, substance needs,” she told CBC News. “They don’t necessarily go together in that way.”

More mental health support

“We feel people need access to support and treatments to support their mental health — the earlier the better so the situation doesn’t escalate,” she added.

Davis said improving access to care is greatly needed as “we haven’t got the resources we need for the needs of our community,” due to underfunding.

Tory said in his statement there’s a need “for more intensive efforts to address mental health and addiction concerns in our society by the health-care system.”

But then he went on to link mental illness and violence.

Toronto Mayor John Tory announced Thursday an increased police presence on the TTC in response to recent violence. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

“This is becoming a more and more acute problem for Toronto and other cities and has a considerable impact on safety and stability on the TTC and many other places in our city,” he added.

Davis said she doesn’t agree that violent incidents on the TTC are the result of mental health and addiction issues.

“Individuals living with mental health and addiction are no more likely to be more violent than the general public,” Davis said.

The correlation, she said, builds stigma and doesn’t support moving forward with better supports for mental health and substance needs.

56 more special constables

“We know that people living with mental health needs have felt overpoliced, and often when police are in their presence they don’t necessarily feel safe or perceive greater risk,” she said.

“It’s a response to violence, not the mental health issue.”

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green told CBC News that the transit system will have 56 more special constables over the next several months with more than 20 hired as of Wednesday. The officers are trained to respond to the transit system’s needs and have the power to arrest.

“We use incidents like we’ve seen to guide our strategic deployment,” he said.

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green says the TTC has a number of security measures in place, including cameras and emergency alarms, but also says the transit system will add 56 special constables this year. (CBC)

Green said the special constables also have training in mental health. And while he admits there is a need for supports for mental health and substance abuse, he echoed the greatest’s correlation between violent incidents and mental health.

“With some of those social issues, there can be violent incidents,” he said. “People who are in need because of mental health and/or a drug addiction, it’s important they get the support they need.”

The president of ATU Local 113, the union representing TTC employees, says special constables will help but the system needs more of them.

“The number of special constables deployed throughout the TTC does not address the scale and safety requirements of the TTC,” Marvin Alfred said in a statement.

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