Shomporko Desk:-Deaths and injuries involving police during purported wellness checks combined with ongoing fights against police brutality are generating scrutiny over how officials react to individuals struggling with mental health challenges.
Police departments in Halifax, Toronto, Hamilton, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Kelowna are among those that have banded together with local health-care providers to create mobile response units that pair officers with mental health professionals.
They tout these extraordinarily prepared units as a progressively viable method of taking care of calls identified with mental health, while advocates state constant underfunding of mental health services has pushed police into a job for which they’re ill-equipped.
“There aren’t good supports for mental health to begin with, so people end up in distress and their only resort is to call the police it seems or to call 911,” said Margaret Eaton, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Officers have a high degree of discretion when it comes to using force and their presence during wellness checks is rooted in stigma and fear that people with mental illnesses are dangerous, Eaton said in an interview on Thursday.
Meenakshi Mannoe, a campaigner with Pivot Legal Society, said police intervention in mental health crises too often leads to people being funnelled into the criminal justice system.
The Vancouver-based organization works with communities affected by poverty and social exclusion, with a focus on police accountability, drug policy, homelessness and sex workers’ rights.
“We see it in the statistics of who’s incarcerated, whether it is Indigenous people who have survived intergenerational trauma, or people with mental health issues who were acting in ways that were criminalized,” said Mannoe, who is also a registered social worker.
“Yet we continue to invest in the most crisis-oriented, escalating approach, which is law enforcement when we could be investing in foundational institutions that actually prevent the crisis.”
In Surrey, B.C., RCMP officers say they’re doing things differently. The detachment has been working with nurses specializing in mental health for 20 years through its Car 67 program, born from a partnership with the Fraser Health Authority.
Surrey RCMP officers attended more than 7,600 calls related to the Mental Health Act last year, and Car 67 handled just under 900 of them.
Car 67 may be dispatched directly or called in by other front-line officers, explained Tina Baker, a nurse who’s worked with the mobile unit for the last decade.
Cpl. Scotty Schumann, who leads the Surrey detachment’s mental health outreach team, said police are probably taking people to the hospital more often than necessary when a nurse isn’t present.
The outreach team receives specialized training from the Fraser Health Authority, which team member Const. Maciej Roszkowski said builds compassion and offers insight into the root causes of people’s behaviour.
“I always picture what if this was my family member in distress,” he added.
At Pivot Legal Society, Mannoe said specialized police training is not a substitute for preventative measures and crisis services that are led by people who have experienced mental health challenges, or in other cases homelessness or substance use.
People and communities who tend to be criminalized don’t associate the police with safety, she noted, and external accountability can be limited when it comes to police officers’ own conduct while responding to mental health crises.
“The police attendance at these wellness checks can, in fact, escalate situations and put people at real risk. For people who are using substances or experiencing homelessness or who are racialized, that risk is compounded by systemic racism and bias.”
Mannoe points to a program in Oregon called Cahoots, which stands for crisis assistance helping out on the streets, as a good example of a community-based program that works. It’s dispatched through the local emergency communications centre but doesn’t necessarily involve the police.
Wellness stems from dignified access to health care and basic needs, “not a uniformed officer banging on your door,” she said.
Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
News source: The Canadian Press