Waiting with mental-health patients at hospital taking too much police time: councillor

Victoria police officers are still wasting too much time at Royal Jubilee Hospital waiting to hand over people who have been apprehended under the Mental Health Act as a danger to themselves or others, Coun. Stephen Andrew says.

Police have to remain with the patients — sometimes for hours — until they can be assessed by a doctor, and that’s taking officers off the streets and putting a strain on the department’s resources, Andrew says.

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He wants the provincial government to reinstate special constable status for hospital security guards so they can take custody of patients upon arrival and let officers get back to their regular duties.

“I looked at [the issue] for years when I was covering it as a reporter,” said Andrew, a former television ­journalist. “I’ve been to the hospital. I’ve watched the officers sit there for hours upon hours with patients. Sometimes there can be three or four cars out there.

“They really should not be, in essence, babysitting patients at the ­hospital.”

The issue dates back to 1997, when the provincial government stripped hospital security guards of their peace-officer status after a patient’s suicide attempt and a subsequent lawsuit.

Former Victoria police chief Paul Battershill asked Island Health to revisit the matter in 2006, complaining his officers were spending up to eight hours in hospital emergency rooms.

But Andrew says the problems ­persist.

In a motion that went before ­councillors Thursday, Andrew and Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe say ­Victoria police apprehended 676 people under the Mental Health Act last year and spent more than 1,000 hours waiting with them at Royal Jubilee Hospital.

The motion, approved by council, recommended the mayor write to the provincial government and Island Health requesting special constable ­status for hospital security staff, provided they are given sufficient training.

Island Health said in a statement that the issue is complex and involves ­multiple jurisdictions, provincial legislation and liability issues.

“It is important to recognize that this issue is not unique to Island Health — this is an issue that affects hospitals throughout B.C.,” the statement said. “Any change would have direct cost implications on the health-care system as a whole, and would require us to ­balance this requirement against our many competing direct health care ­priorities.”

Island Health added that it does ­everything possible to reduce wait times, including having an additional registered nurse in Psychiatric ­Emergency Services.

Victoria police chief Del Manak acknowledged that Island Health has put a triage system in place where officers are released at the earliest opportunity.

As well, in cases where multiple ­people have been apprehended and there is no risk of violence, hospital security staff will assist police so one officer can wait with the patients, while the rest return to normal duties, he said.

But Manak said he would still ­welcome a discussion with the province about restoring special constable status for hospital security staff.

“It would really free up our ­officers and allow them to return back on to the frontlines much quicker,” he said. “There’s no mistake about that.”

Andrew says the problem is ­compounded by the fact that officers were called to Royal Jubilee 111 times in 2020 to find and return people who were allowed to leave the facility ­unescorted.

In addition, Andrew says Island Health often asks police to locate and retrieve people who fail to show up at the hospital for mental-health ­treatment. In some cases, police are required to take the patients home again afterwards.

Council’s motion asks Island Health to assume resonsibity for returning people to custody and that the authority find other ways to take patients home following treatments.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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