A program where specialized police officers are paired with health-care workers to respond to calls where people are experiencing a mental-health crisis is coming to the West Shore.
The province announced Monday that it is spending $3 million to expand its Mobile Integrated Crisis Response teams, also known as Car programs, to nine more BC communities. The teams are already in place in 10 communities, including Victoria and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
The West Shore RCMP team will include one corporal, two constables and mental-health clinicians.
“We are pleased to announce that the Province of BC and Island Health have approved our request to provide clinicians for our mental-health unit at West Shore RCMP,” Insp. Stephen Rose, West Shore RCMP’s officer in charge of operations, said at an announcement Monday at the West Shore detachment.
One in five interactions with police in BC involves someone with a mental-health issue, the province said.
Rose said the West Shore RCMP has seen a 39 per cent increase in mental-health related calls since 2018, from 1,163 to 1,622 in 2022.
He said including medical professionals in mental-health calls will help in gathering information to determine the best course of action. Substance-abuse crises are also part of the teams’ focus.
“It can be done at home and in or where the person in crisis resides,” said Rose, adding that the team could help reduce the number of police apprehensions under the Mental Health Act, which requires police to take people to hospital, where they sometimes face long waits.
The team will be available seven days a week from 10 am to 10 pm, when the detachment tends to be busiest, said Rose.
It has not yet been determined what officers on the team will wear, but it won’t be the same as the day-to-day police uniform, he said. “A more subdued approach, although still professional, is needed.”
The officers will still be armed.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said Monday that the program aims to connect people in crisis to the appropriate services in their community, while taking pressure off stretched police resources.
“Currently, police have been the default first responders for people in the event of a mental-health crisis and we know that in most cases, police-only involvement is not the most appropriate response,” he said. “More importantly, having police-only involvement can help contribute to the stigmatization of mental health, and even deter people in crisis from seeking help.”
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside said the teams mean people with mental-health issues will be met with “compassion and appropriate care.” Teams can provide mental-health assessments and crisis interventions on the spot if necessary.
“We are expanding crisis-response teams across the province to ensure that at their most vulnerable time, people in distress in our communities receive a health-focused response and connections to the services and supports them on their pathway to well-being.”
Whiteside did not provide a specific timeline but said he anticipated the teams would start in “fairly short orders.”
She said health-care workers on the new teams could include nurses, social workers or community mental health workers, and those decisions would be up to the various health authorities and communities involved.
The medical information of the person being helped won’t become part of any police record, Rose said.
Ravi Parmar, NDP MLA-elect for Langford-Juan de Fuca, said there is wide support for the team among local politicians. Thirteen mayors and councillors from area municipalities attended the announcement.
He said the new team and others like it can provide “on-the-spot” crisis intervention and help to de-escalate situations.
“This is a crucial step towards a more integrated and responsive medical-health system,” Parmar said.
Langford Mayor Scott Goodmanson said no city can solve mental-health crises alone, but the team approach “is a great first step to get that going.”
“It’s going to take multiple levels to solve this, but to start off here, this is fantastic.”
Colwood Major Doug Kobayashi said creating a West Shore team is an “outstanding initiative” that shows the power of the community, the RCMP and the province working together. “It’s just a more efficient and effective way of dealing with our mental-health issues here on the West Shore.”
Rose said police brought up the idea for a team after last fall’s municipal elections and found there was considerable interest.
Tina Baker, a registered psychiatric nurse with the Car 67 program in Surrey, said the partnerships between nurses and police officers “are so beneficial to clients during crises because we get to bring our specialized mental-health assessment skills and knowledge right to them.”
“We can give 100 per cent of our care and attention to our clients, knowing that the police are there to keep us and our clients safe. I am thrilled that more communities will soon have this program.”
But Stacy Ashton, executive director of the Crisis Center of BC, said such programs have their place, but are not the preferred response for the general population experiencing a mental health crisis.
“The vast majority of people who are in a mental-health crisis are not violent, are peaceful folks who are just in a lot of pain right now,” she said. “And having the police arrive can escalate the situation for them, can cause fear and agitation, which is just kind of escalating the crisis instead of de-escalating it.
“And that’s not necessarily the fault of the police. You can be the best police officer in the world but you can still have that impact on folks.”
Ashton said details of the programs would be important, including whether the officer or the health-care worker was considered the leader when responding to calls.
“Are you using a [police response] where you don’t need one? Where would a peer-assisted crisis team or a non-police team be perfectly appropriate?” she said.
New Mobile Integrated Crisis Response teams are also being formed in Abbotsford, Port Coquitlam/Coquitlam, Burnaby, Chilliwack, Penticton, Vernon, Squamish and Prince Rupert, while the program is already in place in Kamloops, Kelowna, Prince George, Fort St. John, Richmond, Surrey, the North Shore and Vancouver, as well as the Island.