The Yukon government plans to spend $3.5 million to build a secure assessment centre where severely intoxicated persons can be safely detained and monitored.
The centre, which will be part of a new jail being built in Whitehorse, will provide 24-hour medical support to acutely intoxicated people who are detained or arrested by the RCMP, government officials announced Tuesday.
The announcement follows reports from a task force reviewing Yukon's police services and a task force that looked at services for acutely intoxicated people at risk.
Both task forces have recommended a centre to deal with very intoxicated persons.
"Society as a whole needs to be able to accommodate the acutely intoxicated individuals while they're recovering from their intoxicated state, and they need to do it in a safe and secure environment, so this sounds like a good solution," Dr. Bruce Beaton, co-chair of the task force on acutely intoxicated persons at risk, told CBC News on Tuesday.
Reports respond to recent deaths
Beaton's task force was struck following the May 2010 death of Robert Stone, who died after being transferred to the Yukon government's detoxification centre from Whitehorse RCMP cells.
The police services task force was called following a coroner's inquest in the December 2008 death of Raymond Silverfox, a Carmacks, Yukon, man who died after spending 13 hours in RCMP cells.
In Silverfox's case, he had been without medical care in his 13 hours in custody, despite the fact that he was vomiting profusely during that time.
Government officials say the new secure assessment centre will have cells and 24-hour medical care provided by registered nurses.
"That integration of medical care and secure environment is critical to the management of the dangerous and violent acutely intoxicated individuals," Beaton said.
Beaton said the new facility will also solve some problems regarding the safe care of acutely intoxicated persons, since RCMP officers are not trained medical professionals and hospital staff are often not trained to deal with violent people.
"Somehow, somewhere, Whitehorse or the Yukon territorial government — or the powers that be — need to be able to deal with this population group," he said.
The $3.5-million cost of the secure assessment area will be shared between the Yukon government and the RCMP, meaning planned upgrades to the Whitehorse RCMP's detachment cells will no longer be going ahead.
Could free up resources: RCMP
Yukon RCMP Chief Supt. Peter Clark said substance abuse cases make up a large number of calls officers must deal with, so having a new assessment centre will free up police resources.
"It's generally believed most of the time that our officers are involved with people, there is some sort of an underlying social or medical issue," Clark said. "Reducing that or changing the way we do it should realize some efficiencies for us."
Clark, who co-chaired the Yukon policing review as it toured around the territory last year, said he hopes the review will improve relations between police and the public.
Justice Minister Marian Horne said the government will continue talking with various government agencies and community groups on policing issues.
Horne said she is currently seeking a meeting with Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Ruth Massie.
"I'm waiting to hear back from her so we can set up a meeting in early February … to meet and make sure that their priorities are the same as mine," Horne said.
Safe space welcomed
People at the Salvation Army homeless shelter in Whitehorse welcomed the idea of a dedicated space for intoxicated people to sober up safely.
Many who frequent the shelter have been taken to the RCMP detachment's "drunk tank" or the emergency ward at Whitehorse General Hospital due to intoxication.
"It's a cement floor, there's no beds in there or anything like that, so you're going to wake up [with a] hangover and sore from that floor, so this is definitely a plus," Buzz Bosley told CBC News at the shelter late Tuesday.
Danielle Hinek, who works at the shelter, said having a place where people can have access to medical care while they sober up is a better solution than calling 911.
"People will be quite inebriated, so it's something that really shouldn't be called for 911. But they ask for it because it feels horrible," Hinnek said. "So to have a nurse on-site would be absolutely wonderful."