Calls to Winnipeg's 911 line slowly diverted away from police patrol car response

Slowly but surely efforts to redirect calls for emergency response are being triaged to more appropriate agencies or managed over the phone.

WPS pilot project and 211 line easing some of call volume for direct police response

More than 150 calls for domestic issues triaged away from response by officers and managed by team of police and social workers. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

It may be incremental, but call by call, some requests for help to Winnipeg's 911 emergency line are being managed without sending police to respond.

The modest steps are part of efforts to ease ever-growing calls for service, and respond to concerns that dispatching police officers is not always being the most effective use of resources.

Much of the effort is being guided by a study the city of Winnipeg participated in, led by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

A goal of the study is to reduce calls for service to 911 that do not require police. There were over 648,000 non-emergency and 911 calls for service in 2019 — the last time the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) published the data. 

In the most recent quarter of this year, the Winnipeg Police Service's Domestic Violence Support Services Pilot Project saved more than 880 hours of response from two-officer patrol cars. 

The 211 phone service that went live last October has now triaged approximately 9,000 calls, some of which would have otherwise gone through the 911 line and may have triggered police response where it wasn't needed.

"We are still at the early stages [of the 211 project] and we are working with the WPS to divert calls from their non-emergency and 911 call lines," said the United Way's Jodene Baker.

Baker runs the 211 Manitoba program and says the two operators answering calls on the 24-7 line act as service navigators for hundreds of requests from the public — everything from issues of addiction and mental health to concerns about homeless people.

The United Way's Jodene Baker says the 211 line not only can keep calls out of the emergency services lines but operators can make appointments and give advice to callers on issues such as mental health and addiction. (United Way Winnipeg)

Those calls can then be forwarded to appropriate social assistance agencies — from the Main Street Project and the Downtown Community Safety Partnership to community organizations such as the Spence Neighbourhood Association. 

Domestic issues diverted 

The WPS Domestic Violence Support Services Pilot Project teams police officers with support workers from domestic violence support services from the province of Manitoba. 

After assessing each call, some warrant a phone call back instead of dispatching a patrol car. In the most recent quarter of the year, 157 calls were diverted from a response by general patrol officers. 

"It's a much better service for those people that are looking for information or advice and guidance. They also can speak to the support worker immediately," said inspector Gord Spado, the officer in charge of the operational division that includes the 911 service. 

Insp. Gord Spado says the pilot project is a success and acknowledges "we can't police ourselves out of all of these issues that we have in the city." (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Spado says the pilot allows officers and support workers to respond back to a caller in an hour, where in the past it might take days. 

It's "absolutely a success," Spado says, but cautions there is much more to be done to meet calls to have police respond only where they are needed. 

These are the kind of demands that emerged out of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. 

"Partnering with other community service agencies just makes a whole lot of sense because we can't police ourselves out of all of these issues that we have in the city. So we need help. We need the community to be part of this," Spado said. 

Many initiatives on the horizon

The United Way's Baker admits they can't currently track how many calls the 211 line is diverting from the 911 queue, but are working toward a model of much closer co-operation with the Winnipeg Police Service.

A 211 line in Edmonton (and another starting up in Toronto) has a program set up where an initial triage of a call determines if it should be directed for emergency response or to community response teams staffed with by social workers versed in mental health and addictions counselling. 

Baker says as the Winnipeg line gets more recognition, it will play a larger role in taking calls that might otherwise go to 911. 

"[We] want to have the 211 line to be the front-facing number on triaging the other calls," Baker said. 

The WPS has assigned a senior officer to develop a police and crisis team that combine officers and social workers to respond more appropriately to some calls for service, but that initiative is still a work in progress. 

Spado admits the number of hours saved by the pilot project is modest compared to the overall calls officers are going on, referring to it as a "small win."

He does believe a number of efforts in the works could make a substantial difference.  

"As these things start to pile on to each other with some of the other initiatives that will be coming around the bend, I think in the long haul we'll see this is just a beginning of it, and I think there's going to be a chance for exponential growth on that," Spado said.