Policing
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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Mental health and amalgamation dominate Victoria candidates’ policing priorities

Candidates across the region agree that police should not be the sole responders to mental health calls

By Brishti Basu
October 14, 2022
Policing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Mental health and amalgamation dominate Victoria candidates’ policing priorities

Candidates across the region agree that police should not be the sole responders to mental health calls

By Brishti Basu
Oct 14, 2022
Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
Policing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Mental health and amalgamation dominate Victoria candidates’ policing priorities

Candidates across the region agree that police should not be the sole responders to mental health calls

By Brishti Basu
October 14, 2022
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Mental health and amalgamation dominate Victoria candidates’ policing priorities
Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily

The subject of how the Capital Region should be policed has been heavy on the minds of some electoral candidates. 

In their answers to the Capital Daily candidate survey, several council hopefuls in places like Oak Bay, Metchosin, and Central Saanich said they were content with the status quo and want nothing more than to continue to support their departments as usual.

But sharing police resources and deciding what types of calls they should answer have emerged as two of the biggest challenges for candidates in other major jurisdictions, like Victoria, Esquimalt, and Saanich.

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The Capital Region is serviced by an assortment of police departments. Some municipalities share an RCMP detachment—like the West Shore RCMP, which services Langford, Colwood, View Royal, Metchosin, and Highlands—while others, like Oak Bay and Central Saanich, fund their own municipal police forces. 

Victoria and Esquimalt share one municipal force, under a framework agreement signed in 2002

To amalgamate or not to amalgamate

For years, Esquimalt has wanted out of that agreement, citing rising costs associated with the municipality having to pay for Victoria’s share of policing. In 2022, the township paid 13.67% ($8.4 million) of the Victoria Police Department budget, which accounts for 22% of Esquimalt’s annual budget.

The framework agreement that binds these two municipalities’ police forces was set to automatically renew at the end of 2023, but earlier this year, Esquimalt council voted to end the agreement instead and hire a consultant to explore other policing options for the municipality. 

Incumbent mayor Barb Desjardins, who is running for reelection, stands by her council’s decision, as did several other Esquimalt candidates in their responses to the candidate survey.

“The police service that we have right now under the framework agreement…is such that we have very little say as to the policing of our community, and we have very little say on the cost of it,” Desjardins told Capital Daily. “We need to either have everybody pulled together in an amalgamated fashion, or we want out of this marriage.” 

Desjardins’s opponent in the mayoral race, Sonya Gracey, agrees that change is necessary, but not by divorcing from Victoria altogether. 

“I think we would be better served by staying with Victoria but with a real focus on requesting regional support to offset the costs of running the downtown Victoria policing services—because whether other municipalities want to acknowledge it or not, the downtown of Victoria is ultimately our regional downtown,” said Gracey, a registered nurse and former Victoria city councillor. “But I agree that it shouldn’t all fall to Esquimalt, which at this point that’s what’s happening.”

Over in Victoria—where council will look almost completely different after the election with only one incumbent, Ben Isitt, running for reelection to his original post—the two frontrunners for mayoralty, Stephen Andrew and Marianne Alto, agree with Esquimalt’s decision, but for different reasons. 

Alto says she is “quite excited” by the opportunity to look at how the current policing arrangement can be altered, not just for Esquimalt but for the entire region. Like Gracey, Alto agrees that downtown Victoria serves as the downtown core for several municipalities. 

“It seems extremely arbitrary and inefficient to me to confine those responders to a particular municipality, when you could literally be across the street needing similar, if not exactly the same, type of response and be hampered by the fact that someone drew a boundary,” Alto said. “I think you need to have a force that has the authority to respond in all of those areas.”

For Andrew, the fact that Esquimalt has veto power over budget decisions is what drives him to support their choice to end the agreement. He cited the township’s rejection of VicPD’s budget requests to hire six more officers and four civillians earlier this year as an example of his own dissatisfaction with the arrangement. 

“[The] six police officers were to benefit both municipalities. They weren't just to benefit Victoria,” Andrew said. “And with such a low percentage of the budget being paid by Esquimalt, I think it's unfair to the City of Victoria that we have to wait for months to be able to move forward on this.”

The future of the policing framework in Victoria and Esquimalt will be one for the new councils to decide. But sharing a police department is not as fraught for others in the region. 

“I've been reading a lot actually about what's happening in Esquimalt and Victoria, and fortunately, we don't have the same sort of issue as they do,” said Doug Kobayashi, mayoral candidate for Colwood. 

Kobayashi has been a councillor in Colwood for the past four years, serving with incumbent mayor Rob Martin who is running for reelection. The two see eye to eye on how the municipality contributes to the West Shore RCMP. 

“My argument would be that we need to continue to invest into our policing department and to ensure that we continue to stay safe,” Martin said, pointing to a 2020 Macleans report that found Colwood was one of the safest cities in Canada. “Our five-year plan basically has [been] adding one police officer every year for the next five years into that and so we will continue to invest into our protective services.”

Martin is a proponent of keeping the RCMP detachment in the Westshore as-is, and rejects the idea of transitioning to a BC provincial police service that would do away with the RCMP. This was one of the recommendations from the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act, which released 11 recommendations that seek to overhaul policing in the province.

‘No one plan’ for mental health crises

Another problem identified by that provincial report was the way mental health and addiction are treated like criminal issues—particularly when the subject is unhoused, a person of colour, and/or Indigenous—and how in many cases, the amount of force and police resources used to address them are excessive. 

The committee’s recommendations, after 15 months of consultations, include creating and funding a “continuum of response to mental health, addictions, and other complex social issues” by increasing coordination between police, health, mental health, and social service providers. They also call for a dedicated mental health response team to be added within 911 call options. 

The response to mental health calls has been the second major election issue when it comes to policing in the capital region. 

Victoria Police Chief Del Manak himself has expressed support for new ways to approach mental health, addiction, and homelessness related calls, but noted that “this must not come at the expense of police funding which is already under-funded.” 

For Alto, the solution to overworked police and underserved community is to back civilian-led response teams, like the Peer Assisted Crisis Team (PACT) set to launch later this year

“[PACT is] just so exciting because it's working so well in other communities. When we resort to those types of professional civilian response teams, that works well for certain types of crises,” Alto said. “As we shift resources to more civilian programs, I would like to see the resulting freed up time and resources [to] shift a little bit more into community policing, generally.”

When Capital Daily asked all Victoria council candidates about PACT at an all-candidates forum, the support was likewise nearly unanimous.

“Community policing” has been a priority identified by several other candidates as well, including Desjardins in Esquimalt to candidate survey respondents in the Westshore and Saanich peninsula. 

This involves myriad services, from enforcing traffic rules to having a presence in schools through the School Liaison Officer program, which candidates would rather police focus on instead of responding to mental health calls. 

Andrew agrees that policing alone will not solve the mental health and addictions crises, but wants to fund ACT teams, in which both police and mental health workers attend these calls.

“No one plan is going to solve this issue,” Andrew said. “We have to come at it from many different ways, so anything we can do to lessen the burden of mental health and addiction and on the police department, I totally support.”

Andrew says he has also been supporting the work of See Spring Mental Wellness Coalition, a new Indigenous-led grassroots organization working to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable unhoused people going through mental health crises. 

The mental health of officers themselves is a concern for candidates as well, particularly for Saanich incumbent mayor—and chair of the Saanich police board—Fred Haynes, who pointed to the department’s response to an armed robbery and police shootout at a BMO branch near Shelbourne Street Plaza. 

“If we want these officers to have a long, experienced career, we need to make sure they have the mental health supports,” Haynes said. “If an officer is going out on calls and they're suffering from depression or they're suffering from stress or PTSD from the very disturbing files many of them have to work with, then there's the chance that they're not delivering the service that we want for all the people.”

On the subject of police responding to mental health calls, Haynes is an advocate of integrated teams that include both officers and mental health support workers. “We've asked the government to provide more funding to the Saanich police and all police in BC so that these teams can be running 24/7,” he said. 

His opponent in the mayoral race, Dean Murdock, is more supportive of a civilian-led response.

“We're seeing police responding to non-emergency calls involving mental health cases where they're not properly trained to be responding to those calls, nor is that a great use of their skill set or the resources that they have,” Murdock said. “I would look for us to work with our regional partners, including Island Health, to employ healthcare workers who could assist in those calls.”

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