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

'The wrong tool for the job': Victoria police have a fraught history with mental health calls. What's the alternative?

A new report calls for changes to the way police respond to mental health emergencies

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

'The wrong tool for the job': Victoria police have a fraught history with mental health calls. What's the alternative?

A new report calls for changes to the way police respond to mental health emergencies

A screenshot from a video shows eight VicPD officers responding to a mental health call. Illustration: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily. Photo: Andrea Clark / Submitted
A screenshot from a video shows eight VicPD officers responding to a mental health call. Illustration: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily. Photo: Andrea Clark / Submitted
Policing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

'The wrong tool for the job': Victoria police have a fraught history with mental health calls. What's the alternative?

A new report calls for changes to the way police respond to mental health emergencies

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'The wrong tool for the job': Victoria police have a fraught history with mental health calls. What's the alternative?
A screenshot from a video shows eight VicPD officers responding to a mental health call. Illustration: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily. Photo: Andrea Clark / Submitted

Police officers have shown up two times in the past three years at Daniel Sands’s doorstep. Both times, it was because Sands was either contemplating or had attempted suicide. 

The first incident took place in 2018, when Sands was living in a room at The Scotsman motel. The Two-Spirit 45-year-old, who is Cree from Treaty 8 territory, was struggling with depression. They were alone and having suicidal thoughts—to the point where they’d planned out exactly how to take their life—and called 911 after recognizing they needed help.  

“I was just so deflated and low, I wasn't even aware of really what else was going on,” Sands said. Before they knew it, half a dozen uniformed police officers were outside their door. “It was super intimidating,” they recall. At that point, Sands was still using drugs (they’ve now been sober for three years) and had illicit drugs in their wheelchair bag. In their already vulnerable state, the sight of police instantly sparked more fear: “I just assumed they’re going to arrest me,” Sands said. 

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Out of the six or so officers at the scene, only two entered the room. One—the sole female officer of the group—spoke to Sands and asked them to explain what had happened, while the other searched for weapons (there were none). Then, Sands was strapped to a straight-backed chair and rolled down the stairs to the ambulance that took them to the psychiatric ward at Royal Jubilee Hospital. 

“I felt like the Silence of the Lambs guy when they strapped me into this dolly thing, and then [they] rolled me down the stairs,” Sands said. “I had my eyes closed. I was super embarrassed to be taken away by the police, super embarrassed that my neighbours might have seen the police come and get me.”

It all happened again three years later in much the same way, except this time, Sands called the 811 helpline after attempting suicide in an attempt to avoid police altogether. But when the 811 operator decided Sands needed emergency care, they called 911. Again, half a dozen officers showed up, Sands was taken to the hospital, and again, they were left feeling like a criminal.

“None of them said, ‘You’re not going to be charged, [or] ‘This isn’t an illegal thing that you’ve done.’”

Under the current system in Victoria, police are the main first point of contact for people who need help with a mental health crisis. This system has undergone much scrutiny over the past two years, through a Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act, which recently released 11 recommendations that seek to overhaul policing in the province. The committee heard from 411 individuals and organizations before making their recommendations. 

One of the problems identified 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. 

In response to the report, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said they will be meeting with Indigenous partners, community advocacy organizations, health and mental-health groups, police leadership, agencies and police oversight bodies in late summer 2022, in a step toward adopting the recommendations.  

When asked for his thoughts on implementing the committee’s recommendations on Monday, Premier John Horgan said his focus is primarily on the mental health section. 

“Law enforcement do not have the tools to deal with the myriad of challenges they face when they come to a doorstep,” Horgan said. “We want to make sure they’re as equipped as they can be, having access to social workers, having access to other healthcare providers, so that a law enforcement situation doesn’t emerge from a mental health situation. That’s, I think, the most powerful recommendation in the all-party committee report and we’re going to be moving quickly on those.” 

Excessive

Andrea Clark was walking past The Soleil—a supportive housing facility in downtown Victoria—on her lunch break when she saw a large police presence at the shelter: four or five VicPD cruisers, a white cube van carrying several uniformed officers, and, later, an armoured truck.

“Clearly there was no concern to the public because it wasn't blocked off and I walked right by,” Clark said. “They were just kind of yelling at this guy to answer the phone, but they had a full SWAT team.”

Later that day, Victoria Police released a community update about the incident, with a headline that read, “Armed Man In Crisis Apprehended After Barricade.” The update says police were called to the suite because a man, who had a knife, was threatening to kill himself. Officers tried to communicate with him for four hours, but “the man refused to surrender to police,” police say. 

The update goes on to state that at one point, police shot him with a “less-lethal ARWEN plastic round”—a weapon designed for riot control. It says the man was then taken to the hospital for a mental health assessment.

Photos and videos taken by Clark (and shared with Capital Daily) show eight uniformed officers standing on the street-facing walk up outside the room, calling for the lone, suicidal man to answer them.

Clark had to return to work before she could witness how the man was eventually apprehended, but on her break the next day, she asked a few people at the shelter what had happened. “One of the fellows said, ‘You should have heard him screaming when they pulled him out of there,’” she said. 

“Excessive” is the word used by Clark, Sands, and the Special Committee to describe the way police often respond to mental health calls. The committee heard from the BC Coroners Service, which found that in two-thirds of the 127 police-involved deaths they reviewed, victims were experiencing a mental health crisis, had chronic health conditions, or substance use issues. 

VicPD board member Paul Schachter says he has heard of several incidents in which the level and show of force used by officers was disproportionate to the needs of the call. 

“There will be circumstances where police have to be there,” Schachter told Capital Daily. “That said, I've heard of situations with responses that’s really inappropriate for police where they've been notified about a person with a mental health problem and they appear on the scene with the armoured vehicle and a show of force, which is not the way you want to deal with people with mental health problems.”

Some community updates shared by the Victoria Police department, which select particularly violent mental health calls to highlight in detail to share with the public, were also questioned for linking crime and mental health. The matter was brought up by councillor Sarah Potts at a Victoria council meeting in November 2021. She highlighted a VicPD press release that shared explicit details of two unrelated mental health calls that took place four days apart. 

Potts asked Manak to explain the reasons behind the level of detail shared by the department, “particularly around mental health, where we know there is such stigma…I’m not sure why any member of the public needs to know this level of detail.”

In response, the police chief pointed to a need for media releases to not be too generic. “This is what’s happening in our community and our public has asked us for transparency,” he replied. “We’re trying to share that information in a respectful, ethical manner.” 

“We want to make sure they’re as equipped as they can be, having access to social workers, having access to other healthcare providers, so that a law enforcement situation doesn’t emerge from a mental health situation.”
-Premier John Horgan

However, some of these updates from VicPD’s communications department, when verified, reveal certain inaccuracies. 

For example, in September 2021, a VicPD officer shot and killed a man who was suffering a mental health crisis and threatening to take his own life with a knife. In their community update, police describe him as an “armed man” and said he had stolen from a nearby liquor store. 

Later, management at the liquor store told CHEK News that the man had come in, produced a knife, and threatened to take his own life, but was not aggressive or threatening to staff and left after being asked. Police have not corrected their original statement. The incident is still under investigation by the province’s civilian police oversight body. 

“I think that having these community updates is not good for the community, and it's not good for the police,” Schachter said. “It doesn't create an atmosphere where we're looking at solving social problems. It's creating an atmosphere where there is more fear of crime, there's more fear of seeing people on the street where they are.”

VicPD has not responded to our requests for comment. In a statement on Thursday, chief Del Manak said he plans to “take some time to thoroughly review the committee’s report and the extensive recommendations that it puts forward.”

Finding the right tool for the job

Based on the Special Committee report and Schachter’s own observations, officers themselves feel overburdened with the task of having to police mental health calls. 

“It's my feeling that many of the police on the patrols are uncomfortable dealing with mental health issues and would like not to be the first responder when it comes to mental health issues,” Schachter said. “So I think there's a lot of opportunity for creative thinking.”

During the consultation process, the committee on reforming the Police Act heard about the pros and cons of a number of creative models that would see trained mental health professionals respond to these calls. One of those models, Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), has been implemented in Victoria and across Canada, and involves police accompanying mental health and social service workers on calls.

The problem with ACT teams is they still rely on police to attend every single mental health call, despite this not being needed in every case. 

“The City of Victoria has the highest per capita police budget in the province and having police on every mental health call is not going to address the fact that there's just too much money going into policing,” Schachter said. “It is not really happening in the most efficient way possible.”

Within the Special Committee, debates over what a mental health response should look like have oscillated between proponents of ACT and more community-led models like CAHOOTS in Oregon and SNUG in New York, where peer support and trained mental health professionals respond first and then decide if calling the police is necessary.

“It's like trying to stitch up a cut with barbed wire; it's just the wrong tool for the job.”
-Daniel Sands

VicPD, weighing in on the legislative committee’s work, pushed for officers’ continued involvement in mental health calls. In the past, VicPD chief Del Manak has voiced support for response teams comprised of a mental health worker and a plain-clothes police officer.

“Victoria Police Department noted that police are, and will remain, an important part of the response to mental health crises where there is a real or perceived immediate or potential threat to public safety, or as statute requires,” the report reads. “They added that appropriate funding, staffing, training, and resources for police must continue to be part of the available mental health response resources in communities.”

Advocates like Jonny Morris, CEO of the BC chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association, say that regardless of what the solution turns out to be, all research points to the fact that the current model of having police respond to mental health calls isn’t working and leads to negative health outcomes.

“The use of police and taking people to hospitals criminalizes health conditions,” he said. “There are occasions when police might be required, but we need to swing away from police being the default and look at community and health responses as part of wellness checks going forward.”

In a presentation to the committee, Morris showcased the research of Dr. Jamie Livingston of St. Mary’s University which found that a quarter of people with mental health issues in Canada have faced arrest at least once.

Based on this and other research, the City of Victoria, led by councillor Sarah Potts, started looking into alternatives to policing mental health in 2019, when they established a task force—which Sands was a part of—to collect stories about police interactions during calls related to mental health, particularly from people who belong to marginalized communities.

For Sands, the experience within the current mental health care network was psychologically damaging, and, in their time acting as a peer support worker, they have never heard of a positive experience from a police-led wellness check.

“A lot of people don't call the police, or don't call 911 for help, because maybe they’re sex workers, or they have illicit substances on them,” Sands said. “Nobody has ever said, ‘I'm really glad that police were there when I called for psychiatric emergency.’ It's like trying to stitch up a cut with barbed wire; it's just the wrong tool for the job.”

This consultation process led to the city adopting a pilot project based on the CAHOOTS model that is set to start later this summer. 

Victoria’s new Peer Assisted Crisis Team (PACT) will be made up of people with lived experience of mental health or substance use disorders, as well as clinical counsellors, nurses, and social workers. These civilian-led teams are designed to have mental health professionals and peer workers determine whether police are needed on a case-by-case basis. 

During the task force meetings, Potts said she heard from respondents about a lack of trust in the current mental health response system, a lack of services that meet people’s needs, as well as a “real fear of criminalization and enforcement when they really needed some sort of health response.”

The team will operate the same way as the North Shore PACT in North Vancouver which has a separate phone number people can call when dealing with a mental health crisis. To date the program has responded to over 250 calls in place of police. 

“We're so excited for the peer assisted care team…because it allows people to be met, where they're at, and there is more space to be more reflexive and responsive to what the person needs at that particular time,” Potts said. “It's a different course, and direction than what we have now.”

contact@capitaldaily.ca

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