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Pilot project would see non-police responders sent to mental-health crises

Victoria is moving ahead on a pilot project that would see calls for ­mental-health crises diverted to first responders with mental-health training rather than police officers.
Victoria city hall clock tower generic

Victoria is moving ahead on a pilot project that would see calls for ­mental-health crises diverted to first responders with mental-health training rather than police officers.

The pilot project represents “a ­paradigm shift” for mental-health calls — from a criminal response to a health response, said Jonny Morris, CEO of the B.C. Branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, which is leading the project.

Because police have become the default responders, people in ­crisis often end up in a jail cell or an ­emergency room, neither of which is equipped to deal with the underlying factors driving a crisis, Morris told councillors during a meeting Thursday.

“I would love to see a day where, if you’re experiencing a mental-health emergency and there’s no risk of violence or harm, that no one is ­transported in a police car to an ­emergency department, and I’m always left with the question of how we’ve arrived there.

“We’re responding ­inappropriately,” Morris said.

The goal for the pilot project is to provide support in an emergency and connections to other services that can help address the situation behind the crisis, he said, adding there will still likely be situations involving ­mental-health calls that require the presence of police officers.

The province has provided more than $320,000 in funding for the pilot project.

While it’s still in development, with many details to be worked out, the project is expected to launch by the fall of 2022.

The Canadian Mental Health Association is working with Victoria police, Island Health, community agencies and people with lived experience with mental illness to design the program.

A similar program in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, called CAHOOTS, has been shown to divert money from more expensive medical care in emergency departments and save money on policing.

In operation for more than 30 years, the program dispatches two-person teams, consisting of a medic and a crisis worker, to respond to non-criminal crises involving mental illness, homelessness and substance use, 24 hours a day.

Of 24,000 calls CAHOOTS responded to in 2019, fewer than 150 required attendance by police, where people were violent to themselves or others, operations co-ordinator Tim Black previously told the Times Colonist.

Coun. Ben Isitt raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest in VicPD helping to design the program, saying the police force has a vested interest in maintaining its current role in emergency mental-health response.

Morris said he has heard “profound support” from VicPD representatives, who understand the pilot project would add to the continuum of emergency responses.

Many councillors expressed a desire to see the project start as soon as possible and continue permanently.

An alternative response to mental health is “much needed and long-overdue,” said Coun. Jeremy Loveday.

Coun. Stephen Andrew, who spent time this week shadowing bylaw and police officers working on streets and in parks to prevent encampments, said he saw that mental-health and addiction supports are clearly inadequate.

VicPD spokesman Bowen Osoko said Thursday the department couldn’t comment right away on the potential impact of the pilot project due to the complexity of the issue.

Chief Del Manak and the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board endorsed the idea last year of a civilian-led response to some mental-health calls. At the time, Manak said it should be seen as adding to the system, rather than cutting the police department’s budget.

Julian Daly, CEO of Our Place Society, said he welcomes an alternative response for mental-health emergencies. Daly worked at an organization in Edmonton that operated a similar program, called Crisis Diversion 24/7, that dispatched social workers to individuals in crisis.

“It was voluntary. People didn’t have to go with them, but most times they did. And because they had a relationship, they were often able to defuse situations like really rapidly,” he said.