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The Problem with Sending Police to Mental Health Calls

Vancouver’s new council wants to spend $6 million on more police and mental health nurses. Experts say there’s a better way.

Jen St. Denis 18 Nov 2022TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

[Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide prevention and mental health distress. It may be triggering to some readers.]

Vancouver’s new mayor was voted in on a promise to hire 100 more police officers. But Ken Sim’s attempt to link police hiring with mental health services is getting a failing grade from professionals and advocates who say more police involvement in crisis calls is not the way forward.

“In most cases our callers don't want police to be involved with or without a psychiatric nurse — a visible police presence puts their housing at risk and isolates folks from their neighbours,” Stacy Ashton, executive director of the Crisis Centre of BC, told city council Wednesday.

“We have a revolving door problem where we can identify people in crisis, but can't help folks resolve that crisis. And the concern around investing in 100 new police officers and 100 new psych nurses is that's an investment in the... revolving door,” Ashton added.

City council heard from 26 speakers Wednesday night, all opposed to a motion to approve $6 million in funding to let the Vancouver Police Department and Vancouver Coastal Health hire an initial 10 to 15 police officers and the same number of nurses.

After hearing from most of the speakers, ABC Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung made a motion to refer discussion and voting on the motion to Tuesday’s meeting.

The proposed funding — $4.5 million for the police and $1.5 million for the health authority — is intended to expand the existing Car 87/88 programs, which see nurses paired with police officers to respond to mental health crisis calls.

“Part of the approach is engaging VPD and VCH as early as possible to signal to them that this is happening, so they can start their recruitment and planning efforts as soon as possible,” Kareem Allam, Sim’s chief of staff, told The Tyee.

“We feel there’s an urgency around public safety and mental health issues and so we want to enable the process to move along as fast as possible — that’s the reason for the motion.”

Like many cities, crime and safety fears increased in Vancouver in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and sharply rising costs, including rent and food. Both events have disrupted Canada’s social safety net and led to more visible homelessness. Concerns about vandalism, assaults and theft — often conflated with homelessness and mental illness — were key issues in Vancouver’s recent election.

At the same time, community advocates across North America have been calling for police budgets to be frozen or reduced and the money redirected to social services that could alleviate poverty or chronic health conditions.

Sim and seven councillors from his party, ABC, were elected with a solid majority. The party has linked its police-hiring strategy to mental health.

The Car 87/88 programs are often unavailable when people try to use them, and 18 months ago Vancouver Coastal Health had said they would be able to fund 10 to 15 nurse positions to increase staffing for the program, Allam said. But the VPD was not able to match those positions with police officers, so the expansion never happened, according to Allam.

“We’ve had two very productive discussions with the senior-most levels of the VCH executive, we’ve had discussions with [Housing and Indigenous Relations] Minister [Murray] Rankin, we’ve had discussions with Premier Horgan’s office, and got positive indications,” Allam said.

“So we’re feeling there’s a lot of alignment in terms of the policy direction, but what we’re now working through is the actual logistics of implementation.”

Allam said a recent tragic attack on a police officer in Burnaby shows that crisis intervention work can be very dangerous at times. RCMP Const. Shaelyn Yang died when a man stabbed her while she and a parks employee were responding to a call about a tent in a park. Yang worked with the detachment’s mental health and homeless outreach team.

But experts like Ashton and Jonathan Morris, the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association BC, said funding would be better spent on models that don’t involve police.

Ashton said she estimates that call takers at the Crisis Centre of BC save the VPD around $45 million a year by handling crisis calls over the phone that police would otherwise need to attend in person.

“We have the resources to answer about half the calls we receive, meaning we could be de-escalating many more incidents if we had the resources,” said Ashton. She said the Crisis Centre of BC runs crisis lines at a cost of $1.1 million a year.

For the two per cent of calls the Crisis Centre of BC handles that need to be escalated to an in-person response, there is currently no other option but to get police involved, Ashton told council. But all police can do is take people to hospital, and in most cases, the distressed person doesn’t meet the criteria for hospital admission.

Ashton said it would be better if in-person responses could be handled instead by a team that includes a peer support worker and others who have training in social work or nursing.

Embedding police in mental health crisis teams “can lead to escalation, trauma, injury and fatality,” Morris said, as he urged council to think about adopting other models that are already up and running in many other cities.

Morris said teams that don’t include police officers are now being used in North Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton. Morris said there are plans to start the North Vancouver model, called Peer Assisted Care Teams, in New Westminster and Victoria as well.

“Peer Assisted Care Teams integrate mental health professionals with trained peer crisis responders to provide culturally safe, trauma-informed care,” Morris told councillors.

“They provide crisis counselling, de-escalation and a connection to ongoing community services to support the care closer to home and community, and can integrate well with services like the crisis line network.”

In the one year that the North Vancouver Peer Assisted Care Teams have been in operation, they’ve responded to 700 calls and have only rarely had to involve police, Morris said.

Other speakers spoke about incidents where police responding to a call about someone in distress has resulted in injury and death. Those examples included Mona Wang, a nursing student in Kelowna who was dragged down a hallway during a wellness check, and Chris Amyotte, an Indigenous man who died in the Downtown Eastside after police shot him with rubber bullets while he was suffering from a bear spray attack.

The VPD’s leadership has made it clear that the force does not want to stop doing any of the work it currently does in areas like mental health, despite repeated calls for civilian-led responses.

“Given the current narrative on the role of police services in different areas, the VPD wanted to ensure that a third party, employing proper data-driven analysis and methodology, could help identify what areas and which other organizations needed assistance,” reads the preamble to a recent report on Vancouver’s “social safety net” which the department commissioned at a cost of $149,000.

“For the VPD, it is vital to stay in the current areas in which they are involved, but other organizations can provide specific services that may augment the VPD’s work in those areas.”

Coun. Christine Boyle, one of Vancouver’s three non-ABC councillors, said she has many questions about the motion, including why there is so much more funding allocated to police than to nurses and whether the $6 million earmarked for hiring is the best use of city funds. She the city does need 24-7 mental health crisis response teams, but other cities have shown those teams don’t need to include police.

“When I was working in the Downtown Eastside, there were many calls where we didn't need police to arrive, we needed mental health professionals who could de-escalate and provide support, but not handcuffs,” Boyle said. “And I experienced a number of situations where the police arriving escalated rather than de-escalated the situation.”

Allam said the Vancouver Police Department — which spends $367 million annually and makes up 21 per cent of the city’s budget — is generally underfunded, because the growth in the number of officers hasn’t kept pace with the city’s population. But he said the motion calling for $6 million in new hires isn’t a police-first approach.

“It’s a mental health first approach,” he said.

“By having more mental health nurses participate in these interventions, that will reduce the need for more police interactions.”  [Tyee]

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