British Columbia

B.C. police have become de facto mental health workers, expert panel says

A new report looking into 127 deaths that occurred within 24 hours of police contact recommends changes to mental health co-ordination and police training.

New report makes recommendations after looking into 127 deaths that occurred within 24 hours of police contact

Vancouver police officers in plain clothes approach a homeless man. VPD and RCMP report that 26 per cent of all calls have a mental health component. (Bountiful Films)

An expert panel that looked at 127 people who died within 24 hours of police contact says police in B.C. are a de factor part of the mental health system and need to be better integrated with the provincial mental health and addiction strategy.

That's one recommendation contained in a report entitled Opportunities for Different Outcomes, authored by the B.C. Coroners Service and a special, 20-member "death review" panel that examined deaths that happened during, or soon after, police contact between 2013 and 2017.

Causes of the deaths included suicide, accidental injury, illicit drug overdose, natural causes and police use of force.

The panel made three recommendations aimed at reducing deaths and improving public safety:

  • Incorporate the role of policing within B.C.'s mental health and addictions strategy.
  • Support and optimize mental health assessment and referral to services.
  • Use "subject behaviour officer response" data to develop a training curriculum for police.

Panel chair Michael Egilson said the role of police in the mental health system needs to be acknowledged and supported. 

"Police in B.C. are responding to about 74,000 incidents annually involving mental health and 18,000 of those fall under the mental health act," he said. "We need to drive home the point that the police have become part of the mental health system."

The report found that mental health issues and chronic alcohol or substance use was present in the lives of many of the deceased and often responsible for why police were called in the first place.

More than half of the deceased were exhibiting mental health symptoms at the time of police contact.

Males accounted for 84 per cent of the deaths, while Indigenous people were over-represented compared to population, accounting for 20 per cent of the deaths.

The reports points to factors such as deinstitutionalization of mental health patients, limited community mental health services and illicit substance use as reasons behind increased police involvement with people in mental health crisis.

The Vancouver Police Department and RCMP say just over a quarter of their calls in 2017 had a mental health component.

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