Hamilton crisis team leery of police budget cuts

Terry McGurk of Hamilton's Crisis Outreach and Support Team is worried that cuts to the proposed Hamilton police budget could end up hurting those with mental health and addictions issues in the city.
Terry McGurk (left), shown with staff members Esther Bulk and Linda Stansfield, says cutting two officer positions from COAST - a possible consequence of a decreased police services budget - would harm the agency. (Larry Strung)

A local mental health crisis team is worried that cuts to the proposed Hamilton police budget could end up hurting those with mental health and addictions issues.

"It would be a big loss to the community at large," said Terry McGurk, manager of Hamilton's Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST).

COAST is McGurk's baby — he started it 15 years ago. The team consists of child and youth crisis workers, mental health workers, nurses, social workers and four plain-clothes police officers who deal with mental health and addictions issues in the city.

The way the 2013 police budget is shaping up, things are looking bleak for the officers on the team. Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire's original budget increase proposal of 5.25 per cent was slammed by much of city council as too expensive.

But De Caire warned that cutting deep into the proposed budget increase would mean cutting two of COAST's officers.

It would also mean eliminating five school resource officers, four station duty personnel and nine crime managers, he said.

A 3 per cent goal

A revised 4.75 per cent increase was tabled in December, but members of the police services board said they still want De Caire to find more savings in the $142-million budget.

"We need to find a way to get to 3 per cent — or in or around there — in a way that doesn't hurt this community," said Coun. Bernie Morelli.

McGurk says cuts to the COAST program would be felt in Hamilton right away.

"It would really impact us a great deal," McGurk said. "We'd have to delay response to the community, and we'd have to call on uniformed officers to attend calls."

COAST uses plain-clothes officers to make house calls less conspicuous, in an effort to "decriminalize mental health issues," McGurk says. Their officers stay with the team for five-year stints, and become well versed in how to speak to people with mental health issues and addictions.

"They become experts with individuals who have mental health issues," McGurk said.

Relegated to peak times

COAST receives 4,500 requests for service a year, and 50 per cent of those are house calls, McGurk said. Not all of those calls end up requiring a police officer — but some calls can be dangerous, so they're necessary.

Officers make calls with health care workers between 8 a.m. and 1 a.m. If two of the four police positions are eliminated, the team would have to just try to staff peak times — which can be unpredictable.

"Sometimes we're overwhelmed with calls and sometimes we're just managing," McGurk said.

The team also does what it can to steer mental health calls away from emergency rooms to lessen wait times.

"Generally speaking, people with mental health and addiction problems don't need to go to a hospital," McGurk said. "They need us to go to them."

There's little the COAST team can do now but sit and watch how budget negotiations play out between police and the city. But McGurk is hoping that they can emerge relatively unscathed.

"I'm just hoping it won't impact our program."

The next police services board meeting is Jan. 21. De Caire is expected to present a draft budget to city council three days later.