Policing

Victoria creates pilot project to send crisis teams in place of police to some mental health calls

The Oregon model it's based on has shown more than 30 years of success

By Emily Fagan
August 19, 2021
Policing

Victoria creates pilot project to send crisis teams in place of police to some mental health calls

The Oregon model it's based on has shown more than 30 years of success

By Emily Fagan
Aug 19, 2021
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Policing

Victoria creates pilot project to send crisis teams in place of police to some mental health calls

The Oregon model it's based on has shown more than 30 years of success

By Emily Fagan
August 19, 2021
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Victoria creates pilot project to send crisis teams in place of police to some mental health calls
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

This story is based on interviews originally aired in the Capital Daily podcast. To subscribe and never miss our daily local coverage, click here.

The City of Victoria is creating a pilot project to send teams of trauma-informed civilian responders to some calls in the place of police, through the Peer Assisted Crisis Team (PACT). Ideally, the city says that PACT will respond to 911 dispatch or crisis calls related to mental health as an alternative to the Victoria Police Department. 

“I think it could be a game-changer,” Jonny Morris, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, told the Capital Daily podcast. 

According to Morris, PACT will be made up of members with lived experiences of mental health or substance use disorders, along with those with professional experience such as social workers, nurses, or clinical counsellors. All of the team members will be trained to respond safely and effectively to substance and mental health crises. Unlike previous local initiatives of a similar nature, the team will be made up of all community members, with no police officers.

This service, alongside other projects aimed at supporting and helping to transition unhoused people and funding for local law enforcement (including bylaw officers and police), will be financed with $4.7 million the City of Victoria received through the Strengthening Communities’ Services Program.

Police response to mental health crises

Prior to this new initiative, the city has largely looked to the Victoria Police Department to respond to mental health crisis calls—a practice that faced an influx of criticism in recent years. How police handle these calls saw particular attention following the death of Chantel Moore, a woman from Vancouver Island who was shot four times by police during a “wellness check.”

According to a 2016 study from the Canadian Mental Health Association, more than 30% of people with serious mental health conditions came into contact with police while making or trying to make their first interaction with the mental health system.

“When police respond to a person in mental health crisis as they are trained to respond to a typical criminal emergency situation—with a show of force and authority—they may in fact escalate the crisis to a point of risking injury or death for police or the public, but most often for the person in mental health crisis,” reads the report.

Police involvement can also create a misleading perception to the public that mental illnesses are criminal, or inherently make people dangerous. The report also states that this can impact police, and the general public, who can face long wait times for other police services and trauma from police shooting deaths of people in mental health crises. 

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“Police and paramedics and fire are firmly ensconced within the crisis care system,” Morris said. “I think many would say the pendulum has swung so far where we are collectively over-reliant upon police to be the de facto responder to a mental health crisis.”

Which, Morris says, leaves one question: is responding to mental health crises the right role for police? 

In 2020, Victoria Police Chief Del Manak expressed his support for exploring new ways to approach mental health, homelessness, and substance related calls—as long as it did not come at the expense of police funding. 

Manak noted that he feels there will always be a need for police officers on mental health calls that involve threats or evidence of violence, and that only police officers can apprehend people and bring them to receive mental health treatment in BC. But filling the holes left by social gaps, Manak said, has put police responding to these crisis calls in “an untenable position.”

Currently, Greater Victoria police forces collaborate with Island Health on the Integrated Mobile Crisis Response Team, which is made up of nurses, social programs officers, youth clinicians, and police officers.

A new path forward

In the process of creating this pilot project, Victoria is first looking at the successes and challenges of similar mobile crisis programs in Toronto and Eugene, Oregon. The Oregon team, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets or CAHOOTS, is a particular point of inspiration, as it has been providing an innovative approach to its ‘mental health first’ crisis response for more than 30 years.

“We take over 20,000 calls for service annually and serve as behavioral health first responders: dealing with situations involving mental health, homelessness, poverty, and really everything else that's not a medical emergency and isn't a crime that's going on in the community,” said Tim Black, the director of consulting at White Bird Clinic, which operates CAHOOTS.

According to White Bird Clinic, their model shows that fatalities are not inevitable outcomes of responses to mental health crises. In 2019, police backup was only requested 150 times during about 24,000 total calls CAHOOTS responded to—less than 1% of calls.

Thanks to years of community-based research prior to launching CAHOOTS, Black said that the team had a clear initial concept for how they wanted to serve the community. When the day of their first shift arrived on July 4th, 1989, the community started to feel the impact of a new system in place.

“The fact that you had somebody other than a sworn police officer being dispatched to go and respond to a call that even hours before would have gone to an officer… that's a success right out of the gate,” Black said.

Right away, he says both police officers and the community began to feel a shift as dispatchers had more available officers and resources at their disposal. In 2017, 17% of the Eugene Police Department’s calls were answered by CAHOOTS teams. In recent years, CAHOOTS has also expanded to operate in the neighbouring city of Springfield.

The program also saves the City of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million annually, while only costing $2.1 million. The combined budgets for the Eugene and Springfield police departments are $90 million a year.

Currently in Victoria, Morris says he is working with Island Health, the Victoria Police Department, and other community agencies to find a way to apply this framework locally in a safe and secure way. With recruitment and consultation processes to take on, he estimates it may take three to six months to take hold but is confident the city will see meaningful action from this within the next year.

“I think one key outcome is [providing] the right care and the right response at the right time for someone in crisis,” Morris said. “I think the other key outcome would likely be getting people attached to care in a much more thoughtful way… my hope is, as there's a bit of a transformation there in the places that people can experience care when they're in crisis going forward.”

And if this program results in reduced police deployment, and frees up officers from responding to cases they’re not best suited to?

“That would be a win-win in so many ways,” he said.

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Victoria creates pilot project to send crisis teams in place of police to some mental health calls