Calgary police, AHS initiative sees big success

A joint project of the Calgary Police Service and Alberta Health Services is aimed at a new approach to handling calls about people with mental health problems.

Program pairs officers with nurses, social workers to steer mentally ill towards help

Alberta program pairs officers with nurses and social workers to steer mentally ill towards help. 2:24

The population they work with is vulnerable, mentally ill and often suffering from addiction.

Const. Matt Ball and registered nurse Dana Striepe make up one of five Police and Crisis Teams (PACT) in the city.

"I'm quite surprised we didn't have PACT sooner," says Ball.

Registered nurse Dana Striepe and Const. Matt Ball make up one of five Police and Crisis Teams. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

The Calgary Police Service gets up to 70,000 "social disorder calls" per year. That's the closest the service comes to measuring calls that involve people with mental health problems.

The aim of PACT is to help people with mental illness gain access to the services they need.

"One of the biggest things we aim for is positive rapport and positive engagement with clients," explains Striepe.

Alberta Health Services and the Calgary police often work with the same population base. PACT helps the two services communicate.

"The collaboration is huge because we're all interacting with the same population base and the same clients and this way we're able to collaborate and get the people what they need," says Striepe.

Without PACT, those people would likely end up deeper in the justice system: in custody, awaiting court dates. It’s a fate that makes Ball cringe.

Teams work closely with homeless shelters

"Remand is not any more appropriate for someone with a mental illness than it is for someone suffering with cancer or another medical condition," he says.

"There are mentally ill people who have historically been spending time in remand which has become their new treatment program which is absolutely an inappropriate place for someone with an illness that they've inherited through sheer genetic luck," he says.

The teams work closely with homeless shelters and both Ball and Striepe say they often see tangible positive results when the folks they've worked with get cleaned up and housed.

"Definitely huge positive outcomes around people who are potentially going to be homeless based on their symptoms of mental illness," says Striepe.

"We hopefully can come in, get them engaged with other services if needed, have a stay in the hospital, get them connected with medications if that's what they need and then hopefully prevent people from becoming homeless."

With three years of PACT experience and a degree in psychology, Ball is now in charge of designing and delivering the mental health curriculum for all new police recruits.

"In my experience police want to help. They recognize that people are victims of an illness but they don't know what to do with them."

Both Ball and Striepe say they'd like to see more teams like theirs on the streets.

"It feels great," says Ball. "It's something I wasn't used to as a street officer because I was simply a Band-Aid coming in to solve an immediate crisis and now I get to know that I'm playing more of an active role in the prolonged addressing of the issue."