Police chiefs embrace health-led response to dealing with people in mental crisis

OTTAWA — Police chiefs say they support closer collaboration with crisis workers to help prevent tragedies when their officers confront people dealing with mental-health issues.

Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah says sending two police officers to such calls allows only the option of transporting the person in need to a hospital.

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He told MPs on the House of Commons public safety committee Friday that dispatching an officer and a crisis worker, on the other hand, allows the response team to get a better sense of what will help the person.

Duraiappah said his Toronto-area force responds to an average of 18 mental-health incidents a day.

There are approaches that integrate health or crisis workers into policing, he said, but not all of the questions about how to do it have been answered.

"It's still the police trying to find a way to insert mental-health crisis response within our paradigm."

One difficulty is finding the money and resources to make the changes, and funding available to mental-health agencies and non-profits is limited, Duraiappah said.

"This certainly would be a model that should be available to everybody."

Waterloo Regional Police Service Chief Bryan Larkin said law-enforcement agencies are criminalizing homelessness, addiction and other issues that should be dealt with in different ways through a public health-led model.

"How do we triage mental health in our communities? How do they come into our 911 system? What role (do) paramedics or mental-health agencies play?" he asked.

Larkin, a member of the drug advisory committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, pointed to the association's recent call for decriminalization of personal drug use as an example of a constructive approach.

The public safety committee is studying racism in Canadian policing in response to widespread concern about police mistreatment of Black and Indigenous people.

Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said the issue is "of highest priority for Indigenous women who fear that their daughters or sons could be injured or killed by the very officers who are sworn to protect them."

Whitman said two months after police shot Chantel Moore in Edmunston, N.B., the investigation into her death has yet to be completed and her mother has yet to receive the autopsy report.

"All we know from the media is that Chantel, who was not armed with a gun, was shot five times by the police who were sent to her apartment to conduct a 'wellness check.' How is it possible that a 'wellness check' could end in a murder?"

Whitman said she did not want to paint all police as racist, but she stressed that brutality and systemic discrimination must end.

The association has made several recommendations to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, including more transparent oversight and investigation of serious incidents involving police and Indigenous people.

It also wants to work with the Mounties on developing new protocols to help de-escalate confrontations with officers.

Whitman said Indigenous elders and other knowledge-keepers in communities could play a role in helping police handle responses when someone is in crisis.

"We need to work together, and be able to put our heads together."

The association is keenly awaiting a comprehensive federal response to the many calls for action over a year ago from the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer, who has worked with Indigenous police services, urged the federal government to bring in legislative standards for these police forces, a move that would recognize the essential nature of the service.

The current setup leaves it to bureaucrats, rather than the law, to decide funding for Indigenous policing, he said.

"Indigenous people are entitled to equity and they are entitled to safety backed by the rule of law."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 14, 2020.

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