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‘We get so many calls and usually force is not needed,’ Vancouver Chief Constable Jim Chu says.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Canada's police and mental-health leaders have unveiled an ambitious national plan to bolster training and education for police officers, who respond to thousands of calls each year to deal with people suffering from mental illness.

At a news conference in Toronto on Wednesday, Vancouver Police Chief Constable Jim Chu, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, called the draft report an important and necessary first step in creating what will soon become a formal mental-health education and training program to be adopted in departments across the country.

An alarming rise in mental-health-related calls prompted the CACP to invite the Mental Health Commission of Canada to help strategize on the national framework. It was presented at the end of a two-day conference that brought together 320 delegates from law enforcement and the mental health care community to discuss which policing strategies work, which do not, and how the community-at-large can better assist people with mental-health issues – and eradicate the stigma that goes along with them.

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In Toronto, alone, police receive 20,000 calls a year directly related to mental health. That figure is higher in Vancouver.

"We get so many calls and usually force is not needed," Chief Chu says. "But when there are situations when officers have to use force, we need better training and education to emphasize that force is always a last resort when no other means are available."

The new program will do more to help police understand symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, mood and behavioural disturbances. It will also better teach police how to apply more effective communication skills and de-escalation techniques in situations involving people with mental illness.

Louise Bradley, president and chief executive officer of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, told the crowd she hopes that the partnership between her agency and the CACP will help everyone in the mental-health community better identify and deal with people who have mental-health issues.

She also noted that police officers, too, need workplace support to battle their own mental health issues. "We need to keep our officers safe and well, so they can keep us safe and well," she said.

In a news release, Chief Chu added, "there needs to be more supports for people with mental illness in our community. Often, the police have no choice and have to arrest and charge criminally, people who need the health system, not the justice system."

The new mental-health training report – a previous one came out in 2010 – will be released in June and given to all members of the CACP.

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