A sergeant in the Vancouver Police Department’s mental health unit says she could use double the personnel to respond to the number of calls requiring her 13-member team’s specialized skills.
However, the mayor says the police department will have to get creative in how it approaches a continuing mental health crisis because new funding is unlikely as protesters in Vancouver and across North America call for less – not more – police resources.
At a recent technical briefing, Sergeant AJ Benefield said she would like to have double the personnel given the workload.
“The amount of calls that we do get, we could definitely use more people,” she said.
The VPD says it is impossible to add officers to the unit, which formed in 2012 with three members, without more funding because it is one of “many front-line teams that are in need of more resources.” Increasing staff there would also deplete the patrols needed to keep the city safe at all hours, the department added.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who chairs the police board, said more funding for the department runs counter to a consensus growing in many cities that money should be diverted from police to other agencies better suited to dealing with those experiencing mental health and substance issues.
The mayor has asked VPD Chief Adam Palmer to enter budget talks this fall with creative new approaches to policing a crisis in mental health calls, which was first declared in 2013 by both their predecessors.
Mr. Stewart and council have already asked the department to cut 1 per cent of its current $314-million operating budget and passed another motion on July 27 requesting a breakdown of police work related to mental health, homelessness, drug use and sex work along with the cost of such enforcement.
“We’re in the middle of a crisis that needs all hands on deck and that’s council, police and the province,” he told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview.
“We’re funding what we are under authority to fund and perhaps not enough, I’m hoping that we’ll get recommendations from police as we go through our budget cycle.”
The mayor said he was struck by many of the more than 250 speakers on the July 27 motion who “bravely testified” about their negative experience with police during a mental health crisis. Other speakers mentioned calling 911 for help and not having police respond, the mayor said.
“Their main thing was – and I think you’re hearing this across the country – it shouldn’t be the police responding, but the way the system is set up that’s what happens because it all flows through 911,” Mr. Stewart said last week.
Council’s latest motion also asks city staff to craft a plan, timeline and budget to replace police with community harm reduction and safety programs to respond to mental health, sex work, homelessness and substance use. This big shift away from overpolicing poor and vulnerable people will require the help of the province, which funds health care, Mr. Stewart says.
The VPD also wants to see more medical and social supports for people with mental health problems and a matching decrease in the number of calls it responds to involving people in crisis, spokesperson Constable Tania Visintin said.
Over the past five years, the department has brought an average of 2,900 people to a hospital each year for a psychiatric examination, known as a Section 28 apprehension, and an annual average of 1,800 “form apprehensions,” which involve an officer tracking down a patient and bringing them to a hospital.
Since it was first piloted in 1978, the department’s Car 87 program has paired an officer with a registered nurse to react to calls, which have totalled more than 1,000 each of the past five years. Four officers share two shifts, starting in the morning and running until 11:15 p.m. every day. (B.C. RCMP detachments in Prince George, Kelowna, Richmond and Surrey have their own programs mirroring Car 87.)
A further seven VPD officers work on another two teams that are more pro-active, where they assist a team of health care workers in checking in on people with past mental health issues.
Vancouver Coastal Health says more than 75 of its staff, psychiatrists and doctors work with VPD across the various programs, and the health authority is open to expanding these partnerships.
Robert Gordon, a criminologist who teaches at Simon Fraser University, said any police chief must align their department’s resources with their major priorities, but it might be tougher to draw VPD officers into a specialized mental health unit than other areas of the force.
“When you join the police service, generally you’re going out there to fight crime and round up the bad guys,” Prof. Gordon said. “The social work side of policing has never been a recruiting point.”
Councillor Jean Swanson, a long-time anti-poverty advocate who put forward the recent motion to divert resources away from police, says Eugene, Ore., offers a template for what could happen in Vancouver: 911 operators funnel non-violent mental health calls to a community health team usually made up of a nurse and a crisis counsellor in a van. The units fielded 24,000 calls last year and called for police backup roughly 150 times.
“We need to reimagine how everything is set up and maybe this is a moment where we can do that,” Ms. Swanson said. “We just have to get other people that don’t have guns funded properly.”
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