British Columbia

VPD's mental health strategy signals policing 'sea change,' says critic

After the shooting of Paul Boyd was watched around the world on video the Vancouver Police Department endured scrutiny for its handling of mentally ill people in crisis. Now they have a new strategy described by experts as 'sea change' in police culture.

'We [in the past] — to put it quite crudely — winged it'

This former health worker says in the CBC documentary, Hold Your Fire, that he's homeless, because bipolar disorder sometimes "like a bear ... grabs you in a bear hug and doesn't let go." (Bountiful Films)

After the shooting of Paul Boyd, captured on video, was watched around the world, the Vancouver Police Department endured scrutiny for its handling of mentally ill people in crisis.

Now the VPD has a new strategy that's being described as a 'sea change' in police culture.

Boyd's death was one in a series of high-profile police-involved deaths —including Abdi Hirsi and Tony Du — that raised questions among the public and sparked a police review of practices and training.

In 2013 VPD declared a crisis, citing the overwhelming number of calls involving mental health or addiction issues. Last year, they generated 30 per cent of all calls.

On July 8, the police service released a 41-page outline of its new Mental Health Strategy which sets the tone for the service and encourages officers to get people in crisis into safe care and step back or "de-escalate" incidents whenever possible.

Vancouver police officers in street clothes approach a homeless man in Hold Your Fire, a documentary airing on CBC Aug. 25. (Bountiful Films)

"There has also been a number of high-profile incidences of violent crime associated with an apparent mental health factor, highlighting gaps in the continuum of care and in the system generally," said Superintendent Daryl Wiebe in the draft report which commits the VPD to a culture of "respect and compassion" for people with mental illness and or addiction issues.

Experts laud strategy

"It's only the second one in Canada. This is something that we have been advocating for for years ... and Vancouver should be very proud they now have one," said Terry Coleman an expert and long-time co-chair on the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police's committee on policing and mental health issues.

Ontario Provincial Police were first to come out with a strategy for mental health issues. Coleman said the document helps change internal police culture.

"It spells out that it's OK to not engage somebody or to disengage or to delay taking into custody," said Coleman, adding that police forces have seen vast improvements with use of force in Canada.

Police services across Canada are implementing strategies aimed at retraining officers on how to avoid using lethal force on the mentally ill or those in crisis. (CBC)

Pages 18 to 19 of the document urge officers to consider every response, including "disengagement" and "delay," stepping back from an incident and reassessing.

"We — to put it quite crudely — [in the past] winged it. We didn't have any preparation at all," said Coleman who was a Calgary police officer for almost 30 years before serving as police chief in Moose Jaw.

Traditional use-of-force training sometimes overrides new thinking

"On the whole it shows a sea change in the way that we look at how police deal with mental health over the last 10 to 15 years that's really born from necessity from some of the high-profile shootings and deaths that we've seen ," said Douglas King with Pivot Legal Society.

Despite being encouraged, King is not convinced the strategy will address a key issue — use of force.

While police are implementing new training in B.C., he's seen no research that proves training is working to make officers slow down and de-escalate so that people in crisis do not lose their lives within a few minutes of contact with officers.

King says traditional use of force training and long-standing police culture seems to override new training in in specific cases and that needs to be

More about the report

The draft strategy focuses on providing access to care for people in crisis  — opting for medial help over jail cells whenever safe and possible.  The goal in Vancouver is to see:

  • More people diverted from jail.
  • More partnership relationships with mental health caregivers and experts.
  • Officers embedded in mental health teams.
  • Better supports for youth and Aboriginal peoples.

VPD Superintendent Daryl Wiebe says the force is committed to a culture in which persons living with mental illness and/or substance use are treated with respect and compassion. (VPD)

Procedures for "initial patrol response" are outlined on Page 18 of the draft policy and seems to urge officers to take their time and use less force if possible — even to step back and delay if that can safely work. Officers are advised to:

  • Evaluate and decide if police need to intervene.
  • Determine the best method to communicate. Consider communication barriers.
  • Evaluate the need for backup or help from another officer.
  • Evaluate the need for specialized crisis intervention or mental health resources such as a social worker.
  • Consider engaging the assistance of a family member or caregiver. Learn as much as possible about the person and their previous behavior.
  • If apprehension becomes necessary for safety, develop the safest plan.
First responders are trained to be more aware of how they approach people in a mental health crisis, for instance realizing that in some people, loud sirens, flashing lights and shouts can cause aggression. (file photo/Rafferty Baker/CBC)


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. or on Twitter or Instagram @ybrend