Hamilton

Hamilton police chief open to other agencies responding to mental health, addictions calls

After weeks of public outcry for police reform, Hamliton's police chief says, despite some reservations, he's open to allowing community agencies to respond to service calls related to mental health and addictions issues.

'Where other agencies may be in a position to do and provide that work, we're happy to let them do that'

Hamilton police chief Eric Girt said he is open to allowing community groups to respond to calls for service that may not need police presence. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

After weeks of public outcry for police reform, Hamliton's police chief says, despite some reservations, he's open to allowing community agencies to respond to service calls related to mental health and addictions issues.

Those comments came during a Hamilton Police Services Board meeting on Thursday, about 90 minutes after Black Lives Matter activists painted "DEFUND THE POLICE" on Main Street West. It is now the subject of a police investigation, but no arrest warrants have been issued.

Questions about how to respond to defunding came from Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins. He asked about the shortcomings of the city's current approach from a resource perspective.

Chief Eric Girt responded saying he supported more funding toward mental health calls and said he would be "happy to get out of the business, so to speak.

"Where other agencies may be in a position to do and provide that work, we're happy to let them do that," he said.

"Where it is life threatening, in my view, I believe we need to remain engaged."

Girt also mentioned wanting more resources toward crisis intervention training and de-escalation, which would avoid the use of force. 

"It's often a medical emergency, not necessarily a criminal one."

Evelyn Myrie, president of the Afro Canadian Caribbean Association, told CBC News it is "encouraging he sees there is a need for some reimagination of how the police works with the community around these issues."

Local Black Lives Matter protestors have asked for the service to take 20 per cent of its budget and reallocate it to community service that can better respond to some calls for service.

Hamilton police service has already taken some pioneering steps in how it addresses crisis response callsin recent years, all of which have been praised for their innovation and officer's integration with other organizations.

The service's current approach to crisis response has three branches, and the programs already recognize police aren't always the best agency to solely handle these kinds of calls.

The service says the goal of the programs is to break the crime cycle and offer people community resources instead of the typical police response.

The three branches are:

  1. Social Navigator Program, which sends a paramedic, police officer and coordinator with social services experience  to non-criminal calls about vulnerable people, homelessness, addictions and mental health.
  2. Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST), which responds to non-urgent calls with a plainclothes police officer and nurse or social worker.
  3. Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team (MCRRT), which is an immediate response from a uniform police officer and a health-care worker to life-threatening mental health calls.

Girt said making the MCRRT a 24-hour program would help offload calls to front-line officers.

"They do have crisis intervention training, but the supposition is that others with mental health specialization would go and respond," he said.

Evelyn Myrie, a community advocate in Hamilton, said the local Black community is hurting and change within the local police service is needed to help the community heal. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Myrie said beginning to discuss where money should go is premature without input from the community.

Another alternative, according to Girt, could come from the upcoming Community Safety and Well-Being Plan, which is led by police and a number of community groups including Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, Coalition of Hamilton Indigenous Leadership and the Woman Abuse Working Group.

"If they come up with a solution, again, [we're] more than happy to get out of the business of things we're being told we may or may not have the specialization," Girt explained.

"At the same time, they have to look at how they're going to provide the service, the metrics involved, the simple criminal liability, the oversight that should be provided, and we have all those things in place when things don't turn out well."

At the suggestion of Tom Jackson Ward 6 councillor, Girt said he may add a presentation about the crisis response unit in the next budget meeting.

Myrie said a plan is more vital than ever, noting that the police's relationship with the Black community is essentially non-existent.

Police have spoken out about criticism related to their treatment of marginalized groups. Myrie points to the city investigating Thursday's demonstration on Main Street West as one of the reasons why they are being criticized.

"It would be a sad day for the city if you go after young people who are trying to make a difference and get their message out," she explained.

"They are not the first in a democratic society to protest and disrupt traffic ... our young people are feeling a lot of pain and they're trying to make a difference."

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