West Shore officers say they're also tied up with mental health-patients at hospital

View Royal is backing Victoria’s call to reinstate special constable status for hospital security guards.

Mayor David Screech says West Shore RCMP share Victoria police’s concern that officers are spending too many hours at Victoria General Hospital waiting to hand over people apprehended under the Mental Health Act as a danger to themselves or others.

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“It’s really impeding their ability to police our areas properly and it’s clearly the same as Victoria,” said Screech. “We feel it’s a huge waste of resources to have a constable guarding people in that setting.”

View Royal council has written to Mike Farnworth, minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, asking him to reinstate peace-officer status for hospital security guards. Council has also written a letter of support to their colleagues in Victoria.

“Victoria is preparing a motion to go forward to the [Union of B.C. Municipalities], so we said we’d be happy to add our name to their motion as well,” Screech said.

The issue dates back to 1997, when the province stripped hospital security guards of their special constable status after a patient’s suicide attempt and a subsequent lawsuit.

It was raised again two weeks ago by Victoria city Coun. Stephen Andrew, who said officers are wasting too much time at Royal Jubilee Hospital waiting to hand over people. Andrew wants the province to reinstate special constable status for hospital security guards so they can take custody of patients when they arrive at the hospital and let police officers get back to their regular duties.

Council approved a motion recommending the mayor write to the provincial government and Island Health requesting special constable status for hospital security staff, provided they are given sufficient training. The motion said Victoria police apprehended 676 people under the Mental Health Act in 2020 and spent more than 1,000 hours waiting with them at Royal Jubilee Hospital.

The problem is even more acute on the West Shore.

RCMP Inspector Todd Preston, who is in charge of the West Shore detachment, said mental-health calls increased by 36 per cent last year, from 1,296 in 2019 to 1,769 in 2020. West Shore RCMP responded to 647 calls for suicidal individuals and spent 1,409 hours dealing with people in distress. Police apprehended 290 people under the Mental Health Act and spent an average of 1.9 hours per apprehension.

“It’s a gross misuse of police resources when you have to sit at a hospital,” said Preston. “We’ve had officers tied up at the hospital. Meanwhile, there’s priority one and two calls sitting on the board — domestics, assaults. And we can’t get to those people because we’re physically sitting beside someone in a chair for two hours.”

The emergency department is overrun with people with mental illnesses, he said.

Reinstating special constable status for hospital security guards is a good solution for the West Shore, but the issue is province-wide, said the inspector. Policy could be changed in smaller communities to allow police to turn patients over to a doctor or a charge nurse, he said.

“A lot of these people aren’t violent. They’re suicidal. They’re in a dark spot, down on their luck. They need help,” said Preston. “Is there someone else in those smaller communities who could keep an eye on them until such time as they are seen by a doctor?”

Police don’t want to simply drop off violent individuals and they’re happy to facilitate someone getting to the hospital, he said.

“But how many millions of dollars are going to be tied up doing security?” said Preston. “We’ve been saying it for years. There’s got to be a more efficient way when we’re not even asking for significant amounts of money, just policy change.”

The Ministry of Public Safety says police are required to remain with patients apprehended under the Mental Health Act until they can be assessed by a physician to ensure patient safety. Issues around special provincial constable status are complex and involve multiple ministries, legislation and liability issues, the ministry said an emailed statement. It said it’s working with the ministry of Mental Health and Addictions on mental-health-related issues involving police.

While there is no plan to issue special provincial constable appointments to hospital security personnel, the ministry said, a special committee on reforming the Police Act is examining the role of police with respect to mental health, addictions and harm reduction and considering any appropriate changes to relevant sections of the Mental Health Act.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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