Jack Knox: Loss of cops will change ACT teams' ability to respond to volatile clients

Island Health says it’s going to do its best to ensure all the severely mentally ill people in its care continue to get help.

Still, there’s no sugar-coating what this week’s loss of two police officers from Greater Victoria’s ACT teams will mean.

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“The truth is this is going to have an impact on how we provide care,” says Kelly Reid, the health authority’s director of community operations for mental health and substance use.

Delays. Disruptions. Awkward logistical gymnastics as the needs of sometimes-volatile clients collide with the requirement to keep team members safe. Too bad it has come to this.

“It’s disappointing because from our perspective it was working very well,” Reid says.

Yes, it was. That’s the ­maddening part.

Let’s back up a bit. Island Health oversees four multi-disciplinary Assertive Community Treatment teams — psychiatric nurses, addiction-recovery workers, registered nurses, social workers, and so on — who take an integrated approach to treating a total of 340 people whose severe mental illness is often compounded by substance abuse. The teams provide medical care, psychiatric help, access to housing and help managing medication and money.

The ACT model has been deemed so successful that other jurisdictions are copying it, and the provincial government just bumped its budget by $2 million, which will allow Island Health to add a fifth team.

There are — or were — three Victoria police officers assigned to the teams. Their inclusion troubles some people, the argument being that any police presence stigmatizes mental illness, linking it to criminality.

It’s true that very few ACT interactions require police involvement. Still, the non-cops on the teams say the criticism shows a lack of understanding of the role the three officers play in allowing the teams to serve the small minority of clients whose occasionally violent behaviour would otherwise condemn them to a revolving door spinning them from shelter to prison to hospital.

The plainclothes ACT officers develop relationships with such clients, helping prevent problems from turning into ­crises and de-escalating them when they do.

“It’s frighteningly naïve for the general public to think that it’s appropriate to defund and remove police from a team such as ours,” is the way one ACT team worker put it last summer.

Nonetheless, that’s — sort of — what’s happening. This goes back to 2019 when, after a two-year pilot project that saw the number of ACT officers increased from one to three, Victoria city council, worried about rising police costs, rejected a $243,000-a-year budget request that would have made the two extra positions permanent.

Police Chief Del Manak, confident the province would overturn that decision given the rising demand, kept the officers in place pending an appeal — only to see the government uphold council’s decision this year. On March 31, Manak told Island Health the lack of funding would force him to reassign the officers as of May 1.

Alarmed ACT team members warned the move would jeopardize their safety and the well-being of their clients (“a horrible, horrible idea for so many reasons,” said one) but Manak said he had no choice.

He told last week’s Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board meeting that he simply didn’t have the resources to staff unfunded positions, “although I know that the importance of this is critical.”

As it is, he told the board, uniformed patrol officers are having trouble keeping up. Within a 12-hour shift that day, VicPD’s B watch had handled 107 calls, with 17 calls holding in the queue at one point. “Many of those calls included a mental-health component.”

So here we are, with Island Health trying to figure out how it will keep serving some of the hardest-to-serve ACT clients after this week.

“There will be some changes to our responsiveness at times,” Reid said. There will be occasions when a client needs help but won’t be able to get it unless and until a cop can be rounded up to accompany the nurse, or whoever is providing the aid. And there might be more tension if that cop is a uniformed stranger called in from a patrol shift, not a familiar face in plain clothes.

Also, some clients might find themselves having to go to a hospital emergency room or the ACT offices for services they would previously get at home, as there are some places — certain encampments and low-barrier buildings — into which Island Health is unwilling to send team members unescorted. “They need to have a safe work environment,” Reid says. “There’s no compromise on that.”

Think of that. Think of the kind of commitment and compassion you would need to take on such a job, where the victories are small and the demand unrelenting.

The people on the ACT teams — cops and non-cops alike — keep pushing this rock up the hill because they believe in what they do. And the hill is about to get steeper.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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