Advocates say chronic underfunding of mental health services has thrust police into a role for which they’re ill-equipped. CP photo

Advocates say chronic underfunding of mental health services has thrust police into a role for which they’re ill-equipped. CP photo

Advocates call for community-led crisis intervention, not police

Police departments in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, have partnered with local health-care providers

SURREY, B.C. — Deaths and injuries involving police during so-called wellness checks coupled with recent protests against police brutality are generating scrutiny over how officers respond to people struggling with mental health challenges.

Police departments in Halifax, Toronto, Hamilton, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Kelowna are among those that have partnered with local health-care providers to create mobile response units that pair officers with mental health professionals.

They tout these specially trained units as a more effective way of handling calls related to mental health, while advocates say chronic underfunding of mental health services has thrust police into a role for which they’re ill-equipped.

“There aren’t good supports for mental health to begin with, so people end up in distress and their only resort is to call the police it seems, or to call 911,” said Margaret Eaton, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Officers have a high degree of discretion when it comes to using force and their presence during wellness checks is rooted in stigma and fear that people with mental illnesses are dangerous, Eaton said in an interview on Thursday.

Meenakshi Mannoe, a campaigner with Pivot Legal Society, said police intervention in mental health crises too often leads to people being funnelled into the criminal justice system.

The Vancouver-based organization works with communities affected by poverty and social exclusion, with a focus on police accountability, drug policy, homelessness and sex workers’ rights.

“We see it in the statistics of who’s incarcerated, whether it is Indigenous people who have survived intergenerational trauma, or people with mental health issues who were acting in ways that were criminalized,” said Mannoe, who is also a registered social worker.

“Yet we continue to invest in the most crisis-oriented, escalating approach, which is law enforcement, when we could be investing in foundational institutions that actually prevent crisis.”

In Surrey, B.C., RCMP officers say they’re doing things differently. The detachment has been working with nurses specializing in mental health for 20 years through its Car 67 program, born from a partnership with the Fraser Health Authority.

The car operates from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m., when police say the volume of calls related to mental health tends to be higher.

Surrey RCMP officers attended more than 7,600 calls related to the Mental Health Act last year, and Car 67 handled just under 900 of them.

Car 67 may be dispatched directly or called in by other front-line officers, explained Tina Baker, a nurse who’s worked with the mobile unit for the last decade.

Either way, police assess the situation first to make sure it’s safe for Baker or another nurse to attend.

When she is called, Baker checks the person’s health records, which police cannot do. That provides a baseline understanding of what the person may be grappling with and what treatment they’ve already had, she said.

Whether a person is getting help can influence if they are taken into custody under the Mental Health Act, said Baker.

If they have support in the community, “we can liaise with them as opposed to going to the hospital,” she added.

Apprehending under the act can be traumatizing and confusing, said Baker, especially since it involves handcuffs. When she’s on duty with Car 67, Baker said she works with the officer she’s paired with to de-escalate the situation.

“A lot of people can be quite calm and then the minute you change their environment, whether it be into the police car or into the hospital setting, then they can become agitated. So, we have a role to keep everybody safe until we know that client is going to be OK.”

Cpl. Scotty Schumann, who leads the Surrey detachment’s mental health outreach team, said police are probably taking people to the hospital more often than necessary when a nurse isn’t present.

The outreach team receives specialized training from the Fraser Health Authority, which team member Const. Maciej Roszkowski said builds compassion and offers insight into the root causes of people’s behaviour.

“I always picture what if this was my family member in distress,” he added.

Roszkowski is among a group of officers specially selected based on their interest in working with vulnerable people, said Insp. Wendy Mehat, who oversees the outreach team.

“Our policing strategy is not based on arresting and handcuffing our way out of situations. It’s developing bonds, negotiating with our clients and getting them the support and referrals and help that they need,” she said.

At Pivot Legal Society, Mannoe said specialized police training is not a substitute for preventative measures and crisis services that are led by people who have experienced mental health challenges, or in other cases homelessness or substance use.

People and communities who tend to be criminalized don’t associate the police with safety, she noted, and external accountability can be limited when it comes to police officers’ own conduct while responding to mental health crises.

“The police attendance at these wellness checks can, in fact, escalate situations and put people at real risk. For people who are using substances or experiencing homelessness or who are racialized, that risk is compounded by systemic racism and bias.”

Mannoe points to a program in Oregon called Cahoots, which stands for crisis assistance helping out on the streets, as a good example of a community-based program that works. It’s dispatched through the local emergency communications centre but doesn’t necessarily involve police.

Wellness stems from dignified access to health care and basic needs, “not a uniformed officer banging on your door,” she said.

Coronavirus

Just Posted

Photo Courtesy: Echo Lacombe Association logo.
Lacombe City Council supports Echo Lacombe with location for pilot program

Echo Lacombe Association will run a pilot propgram on food rescue until November, 1, 2021

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Red Deer COVID cases continue to fall

114 cases in Red Deer, down one from Saturday

File Photo
Blackfalds RCMP seeking suspects in traffic collision

RCMP are asking the public for help identifing two suspects wanted for multiple offences

Maskwacis Pride crosswalk (Left to right): Montana First Nation Councillor Reggie Rabbit, Samson Cree Nation Councillor Louise Omeasoo, Samson Cree Nation Councillor Katherine Swampy, Samson Cree Nation Councillor Shannon Buffalo, Samson Cree Nation Chief Vern Saddleback.
Pride in Maskwacis

The 4th inaugural Maskwacis Pride crosswalk painting took place on Saturday June 12th, 2021

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives at the 2021 budget in Edmonton on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta launches COVID vaccine lottery with million-dollar prizes to encourage uptake

The premier says the lottery will offer three prizes worth $1 million a piece, as well as other prizes

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

A health-care worker holds up a sign signalling she needs more COVID-19 vaccines at the ‘hockey hub’ mass vaccination facility at the CAA Centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brampton, Ont., on Friday, June 4, 2021. This NHL-sized hockey rink is one of CanadaÕs largest vaccination centres. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
‘Vaxxed to the max’: Feds launch Ask an Expert campaign to encourage COVID shots

Survey shows that confidence in vaccines has risen this spring

Children’s shoes and flowers are shown after being placed outside the Ontario legislature in Toronto on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Ontario commits $10 million to investigate burial sites at residential schools

Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 12 locations of unmarked burial sites in Ontario

Two hundred and fifteen lights are placed on the lawn outside the Residential School in Kamloops, B.C., Saturday, June, 13, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Days after Kamloops remains discovery, Tk’emlups families gather to unite, move ahead

‘We have to work together because this is going to be setting a precedent for the rest of the country’

In this Saturday, May 29, 2021, file photo, people crowd the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, Calif. California, the first state in America to put in place a coronavirus lockdown, is now turning a page on the pandemic. Most of California’s coronavirus restrictions will disappear Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
With COVID tamed, it’s a ‘grand reopening’ in California

No more state rules on social distancing, no more limits on capacity, no more mandatory masks

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) is scored on by Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alec Martinez, not pictured, during the second period in Game 1 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Monday, June 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Habs fall 4-1 to Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of NHL semifinal series

Match was Montreal’s first game outside of Canada in 2021

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

RCMP Const. Shelby Patton is shown in this undated handout photo. RCMP say that Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over on Saturday morning in Wolseley, east of Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP
Pair charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance

Const. Shelby Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over Saturday morning

David and Collet Stephan leave for a break during an appeal hearing in Calgary on Thursday, March 9, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Appeal Court rejects stay for Alberta couple facing third trial in son’s death

Pair accused in their earlier trials of not seeking medical attention for their son sooner

Most Read