Jack Knox: It’s unsafe, mental-health workers say, as VicPD cuts community-team cops

It’s not just their own safety being put at risk, the women say. It’s the well-being of the vulnerable people they serve.

Will Victoria’s ACT teams even be able to keep working with some of their more volatile clients? Will the change push them toward crisis?

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“It’s unsafe,” one woman says.

“It’s a horrible, horrible idea, for so many reasons,” says another.

What they’re talking about is a decision to remove two of the three Victoria police officers attached to local mental-health teams. The move, effective May 1, has some current and former team members sounding the alarm.

But Victoria Police Chief Del Manak replies that he has no choice but to reassign the officers, due to the decision of Victoria city council, backed by the province, not to fund the effort.

At question are the four multi-disciplinary teams — they include psychiatric nurses, addiction-recovery workers, registered nurses and social workers, among others — tasked with caring for 340 people whose severe mental illness is often compounded by substance abuse.

Most of the time, the ACT — or Assertive Community Treatment — team members don’t need police around, but occasionally they do. Sometimes there are buildings health workers don’t feel safe entering alone, and sometimes the clients themselves are at a point where a dampening presence is required. Experience shows things go more smoothly when the cop who shows up is out of uniform and already has a relationship with the client.

“Our integrated police are amazing,” one team member said. “They know the clients. They know how to de-escalate them before they become aggressive.”

That’s why, in 2019, following a two-year pilot project that saw the number of ACT officers increased from one to three, the Esquimalt and Victoria Police Board decided to make the increase permanent. It submitted a 2020 operating budget that included adding the two positions to VicPD’s strength at a cost of $243,000 a year.

But while Esquimalt council approved the idea, Victoria council, eager to rein in rapidly rising police spending, did not.

So, just as it had the previous year when Esquimalt council balked at hiring six more cops, the police board appealed to the provincial government to override the decision. (The appeal also included two other positions rejected by both Esquimalt and Victoria.)

At the time, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth reacted with the annoyance that has occasionally peppered the province’s relationship with city council.

“We’d prefer that it be decided among the parties,” Farnworth said after being asked to step in again.

“I know that one of the parties seems to want to spend more time debating 50 per cent pay increases, and perhaps if they spent more time with the police, we wouldn’t quite find ourselves in these issues all the time.”

That was a shot at councillors who had floated the idea of increasing their own remuneration.

Given that the province had sided with the police board the previous year, and believing the funding of the ACT officers to be a “no-brainer,” Manak kept all three officers in place while awaiting the province’s decision. But when that decision was finally made this January, the province sided with the majority on Victoria council.

At the time, the ruling worried Mayor Lisa Helps, the co-chair of the police board: “The department’s going to need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how — with already very, very stretched resources — it’s going to be able to manage keeping those ACT officers, because I think those ACT officers are really important.”

Nonetheless, after one last attempt to change the province’s mind, Manak announced the two extra officers would be reassigned as of May 1. Island Health, which oversees the ACT teams, says the safety of its staff and clients is critical, and it is scheduled to meet with the chief this week.

Is all this just politics at play, part of the ongoing tug-of-war between council and the police board? It isn’t unknown, when governments restrict spending, for public agencies to reply by threatening to cut popular programs — music in schools, say — as a pressure tactic: “The politicians wouldn’t give us money for pet food, so we had to shoot the dog.”

No, says Manak, the department simply doesn’t have a way to pay for something that isn’t in the budget. “We just don’t have resources to start funding positions where government has sent us a strong message.”

As it is, VicPD is having trouble putting enough cops on the street, he says. On paper, the department has 249 sworn members, but in reality only 211 are deployable. The rest are physically injured, on stress leave, on family leave or in training.

In consequence, some positions have vanished: the crime reduction unit and school liaisons are long gone. Patrol officers struggle to keep up to calls. Two weeks ago, it took more than three days to respond to a harassment complaint. Someone who reported a $17,000 fraud didn’t hear from a cop for 26 hours.

So, Manak says, he had no choice but to cut the ACT cops, even though it’s a big step backwards.

“It pains me to make this decision.”

That’s Manak’s view from the top. At ground level, the picture isn’t any brighter.

“I have no idea how we’re going to do it,” said one of the team members who, although they’re not supposed to talk about this stuff, reached out to raise their concerns. Are they supposed to call patrol cops now? Uniformed officers aren’t always available when needed, and often don’t get a great ­reaction from clients when they are.

Sue Hamilton, who retired from VicPD in January after a career in which she spent the final six years with ACT, is dismayed. She was the lone officer in the job at one point, and says that won’t work anymore, not with today’s demands.

“What people don’t realize is the ripple effect this will have on the community,” Hamilton said. Having fewer ACT officers means clients will get less care, which will lead to declining mental health, which will mean more contacts with street cops and the justice system, which will put more pressure on resources, which will erode the perception of public safety. It’s the at-risk, marginalized, sometimes unpredictable and volatile clients who have the most to lose.

“This population deserves so much more.”

jknox@timecolonist.com

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