Saskatoon police to have paramedics in detention cells 24/7

Police want to extend a contract with MD Ambulance to have paramedics monitoring detention cells around the clock.

Change prompted by latest in-custody death

Police say it's time for a paramedic on site here around the clock. (CBC)

Saskatoon police will soon have paramedics in city detention cells around the clock.

The move to expand paramedic hours beyond 12 hours a day was approved by the board of police commissioners Thursday. 

In future, there will be an emergency medical technician available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It's believed the change could happen in early June.

Prisoners have sometimes ingested unknown substances

Saskatoon police Chief Clive Weighill said the medical condition of prisoners being brought into cells is sometimes an unknown. 

"We don't know what people have ingested before they come into our cell block," Weighill said. 

"A lot of the arrests that we have are for public intoxication. We're dealing lots of times with people with mental health and addiction issues, so we really don't know what we've got on our hands."

The decision comes two weeks after a man died while in police custody. 

"Tragically on Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, there was an in custody death in the SPS detention centre," Deputy Chief Bernie Pannell wrote to the board.

"The unfortunate incident occurred during the 12-hour period when there was no EMT  [emergency medical technician] on duty."

Medical specialist can recommend hospital for prisoners

The police service reached a deal with the Saskatoon health region five years ago to help pay for a medical specialist to monitor people in detention. They watch the prisoners and evaluate their responses to medical questions and, when warranted, can recommend the person be moved a hospital.

The health region gives police $150,000 a year to that end. Police contract MD Ambulance to provide the paramedic, at a cost of $245,000 a year. This means the service is already paying $95,000 a year out of its operating budget.

When the numbers shake out, Pannell wrote that this will cost the department another $163,000. 

"So it's not just one primary care paramedic that we're hiring." Weighill said. "We have to cover all those hours, so that's why it's so costly." 

Remand, youth addiction centre still needed, chief says

While the decision to expand paramedic service in detention cells is necessary, it also draws attention to the need for a remand centre and a youth addiction centre, Weighill said.

A lot of people in police detention cells are "there for health reasons, not criminal reasons," he said.

"For us to be housing people that have mental health and addiction issues ... this isn't the proper place for them," Weighill said.

"They should be housed in a place with dignity, [that] has better stabilization, that can give them the proper care. Not a police detention area."