His appointment book fills weeks — even months — in advance, but talking about mental health and the justice system is something Calgary police Chief Rick Hanson makes time for.

Hanson says mentally ill people are plugging up the justice system and it is one of the police service's top priorities to fix.

"Unfortunately for too long a health issue became the problem of the justice system," Hanson says. 

It's more than simply "unclogging the system" for the chief though.

His interest in the issue began in the mid 1970s as a young beat cop working downtown when he got to know some of the homeless population.

'We know that probably 50 per cent of people that are in prisons and jails suffer from an undiagnosed mental illness."— Police Chief Rick Hanson

"When you actually got to talk to them, the ones that were doing the dumpster diving for food, the ones everyone knew were a little bit crazy or drank a lot, so many of them turned out to be World War Two vets," he explains.

"This is what they had devolved to because of the lack of treatment and the lack of recognition of what they had to deal with and what they came back to."

Hanson says he began to understand that undiagnosed mental illnesses can manifest into substance abuse, petty crime and homelessness.

"That kind of thing sticks with you so that ... you start to question why people are on the street, and is there more we can do about mental illness? It's a motivator," Hanson says.

'Our job is to put bad guys in jail'

Hanson says police officers have plenty on their plates as it is without having to deal with minor crimes that people with mental health problems typically commit.

"Our job is to put bad guys in jail and make the streets safe and there's lots of work out there for us in that regard," Hanson said. "There are gang members, there are criminals, there's white-collar crime, there's child abuse — I mean there's all kinds of work that we have to focus on."

Of the 500,000 calls the service gets every year, roughly 70,000 are classified as "social disorder" calls — that's the closest the department gets to measuring the amount of calls involving people with mental illness.

Under Hanson's leadership, Police and Crisis Teams (PACT) were launched as a pilot project. Now, five teams regularly cruise city streets.

The teams, made up of an officer and an Alberta Health Services clinician, get people who are in crisis and suffering with serious mental health problems linked up with services rather than have them wind up deeper in the justice system.

Substance abuse and mental illness can go hand in hand. Often those suffering from mental disorders are undiagnosed and begin self-medicating.

"They're out on the street, they have to commit crimes to support their habit," says Hanson. "And when they run afoul of us, they're into the justice system and, because they're undiagnosed, they're just put right into the general population so these folks will be put through court which contributes to clogging up the court system."

Revolving door of justice

This is how the revolving door of the justice system begins, the chief explains.

"They wind up going to prison or jail for a while where they don't get the treatment they need, they wind up being released frequently to no fixed address and the cycle starts," he said. 

"We know that probably 50 per cent of people that are in prisons and jails suffer from an undiagnosed mental illness," Hanson said.

But Calgary's top cop has a solution and it's one he's been talking about for years — take one of the province's existing jails and turn it into a secure mental health detox facility.

"They're going to jail anyway," Hanson explains. "You've dried somebody out, assessed that they've got a mental illness, done the medication piece so they no longer have to self-medicate, introduced them to a service provider, and the likelihood of success with that person moving forward into a better life are far higher."

"If people are looking for a reason to want this to work, the cost efficiencies down the road, the cost effectiveness of this initiative is going to be huge."

Hanson has travelled the country talking about this.

He has been to the U.S. to look at best practices south of the border. And for all of the problems in the Alberta system, Hanson says Calgary is still coming out on top.

"I can safely say that I'm unaware of any city in Canada or the U.S. that is approaching this problem in as comprehensive a manner as is being done here, and we're in the early stages.... I think it's going to have major outcomes down the road," Hanson explained.

"We've got a long way to go but we're well underway to working on a co-ordinated way of dealing with the issue."