5 Saskatoon mobile crisis units offering first-response alternative to police

Some Saskatoon organizations say a recent arrest caught on video that has led to public outcry could have gone different if first responders other than police had been called to the scene. 

Some centres say working with police and education is key to de-escalation on wellness checks

Okihtcitâwak Patrol Group members pose for a photo before heading out on patrol. ((Penny Smoke/CBC))

Some Saskatoon organizations say a recent arrest caught on video that has led to public outcry could have gone different if first responders other than police had been called to the scene.

The video from July 4 shows a struggle between Evan Penner and a police officer.

The officer punches Penner several times. Other officers then arrive and Penner is punched more and tased.

Penner was arrested and now faces charges including assault of a police officer.

The landlord of a building in the area previously told CBC she called the police non-emergency line after a tenant reported feeling uncomfortable after seeing a man using the building's garden hose to bathe. 

Advocates have stated that a situation like this one would be better dealt with using a wellness check, rather than a call to police.

There are five groups in Saskatoon that offer wellness checks. They say working with police and education is key to de-escalation.

Okihtcitâwak Patrol Group

The Okihtcitâwak Patrol Group is an Indigenous created and led group formed in Pleasant Hill after a near-abduction in the area. It has been supporting harm reduction and prevention since 2017.

The patrol group typically picks up needles and monitors activity in the area, but has added the addition of mental health and wellness checks to their programming this week in direct response to the Penner video. 

"The areas that we patrol, they have to trust us more, that way we can assist them in any way possible," Delano Kennedy, a team leader with the patrol group, said. "People that we come in contact with, we try to meet them where they're at in life."  

Okihtcitâwak Patrol Group sing a round dance song in preparation for a night of patrolling. ((Penny Smoke/CBC))

Kennedy said sometimes people are intoxicated, dealing with mental health issues or just need something to eat. He said it's about helping them find resources and get the help they need. 

Every Wednesday, the patrol holds traditional drumming and singing in Pleasant Hill Park. Kennedy said it helps bring positivity back to the neighbourhood by First Nations. 

Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Service

Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Service (SCIS) has a Mobile Crisis Unit that runs 24/7, 365 days a year. The nonprofit deals with about 30,000 calls a year. 

SCIS does mental health and wellness checks, responds to partner and family violence, takes care of children when social services is not open, helps seniors in distress, works in suicide prevention and works to address issues with drug or alcohol abuse. 

Rita Field said SCIS often responds to calls instead of police. She said it fits into the emergency continuum of care and that staff are trained in safety as they work around the clock going into different situations. 

"We are a trauma informed agency so we understand the role of trauma and history and inter-generational history affecting the day-to-day quality of life for many individuals," she said. 

Field said the service could use more resources for when staff are sick or away. 

Community Support Officers

Community Support Officers patrol the Riversdale, Broadway and Downtown districts in uniform and are partially paid for by parking meter money from the neighbourhoods. They are designated by the city as bylaw enforcement officers and are trained to use de-escalation techniques. 

Rob Garrison, the supervisor for this program, said officers respond to about 200 calls a month.

"It was brought into being through concerns with people that are in distress and some of the issues that arose in Downtown and Broadway Riverdale specifically," Garrison said. "Initially with people not feeling safe in the community due to all the different people that frequent downtown."

Members of the Community Support Program patrol three neighbourhoods in the city. (Submitted by Community Support Program)

The officers are trained by the Saskatoon Police Service and have a bike and food patrol. Garrison said they mainly focus on helping people who may run into problems with mental health issues or additions, and guide them to services. 

"Generally, what I tell people is we're there to handle calls that the police don't need to be dealing with because some of the calls can take up to anywhere from 10 minutes to three hours," he said.

Garrison said the officers do not use force and call police if there is criminal activity. Garrison said communication is key and police know what kind of a call the officers are on. Out of 200 calls, Garrison said they need to call police or EMS about 10 per cent of the time. 

The Lighthouse Supported Living

The Lighthouse Supported Living is a centre for people in need of a place to stay. It focuses on working with intoxicated people to get them back on their feet and relationship building.

The agency also has a mobile outreach unit. Pam Hutchings, an outreach worker with the mobile unit, said they focus on intoxicated people throughout the city.

"When we get a phone call from the police or from the citizens or even from a passerby, that's like we drop everything else," Hutchings said.

She said the workers usually recognize the people they've been called to help.

"That makes us unique, is that we have really personal relationships with a lot of individuals in our community," she said.

The Lighthouse has three sections: overnight beds in its stabilization unit, transitional housing, and a supported living unit which opened in 2012. (Don Somers/CBC)

Having those relationships helps keep interactions calm and get people appropriate help, Hutchings said. For some it's the stabilization unit at the Lighthouse, for others it's the detox centre near St. Paul's Hospital. 

"I think with proper education and training, we could avoid some of the physical altercations that have been happening," she said. 

Hutchings said it's a complex issue, but training is going to be key when it comes to de-escalation and mental health issues. 

"I think if mobile crisis maybe would have been called instead of the police, the whole situation could have probably been avoided. I can't say for sure. I wasn't there."

EGADZ Drop-In Centre 

EGADZ Drop-in Centre is a non-profit that works with vulnerable people and runs a mobile crisis unit. The mobile unit also has diapers, formula and printed information, offers people rides, gives people someone to talk to and can bring food as needed. 

"Our main goal is to build the relationships with the people that we're serving and then go from there to try to be able to help them," Don Meikle, EGADZ's executive director, said. "Whether they need a referral to addictions or to a detox center or just sitting around for an hour."

Meikle said staff do a lot of crisis intervention training to build relationships and help clients. 

He said sometimes police will phone EGADZ to come and support a person, or that EGADZ will phone police when needed. What's happening on the streets is changing though, he said. He said the drugs people are using these days are compounding mental health issues.

"Back in the day, when I worked in the van … I dealt with people with guns. But nowadays it's so much worse," Meikle said. "There's so much unpredictability with the type of drugs."

Meikle said that before there is a discussion about defunding police to put more funds into mobile crisis services, there needs to be an in-depth conversation around how to help the community now.

With files from Heather Morrison