Windsor police working to establish 'fourth option' for 911 calls during mental health crises
Police deal with too many calls better suited for mental health specialists: councillor
The Windsor Police Service is working on a memorandum of understanding with other agencies that would establish a "fourth option" — beyond police, fire and ambulance — when people call 911 for someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
The service is hoping to establish what it calls a "co-response model" with the agencies where crisis management experts would join police in responding to those kinds of 911 service calls.
"When somebody calls 911 and says there's an issue, they (police) have to respond. Quite frankly, right now, there is nobody else responding," said Coun. Rino Bortolin following Thursday's meeting of the Windsor Police Services Board. "So I'm very eager for this."
Currently, police rely on the Community Outreach and Support Team (COAST) to provide follow-up assessments and community referrals for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, according to Windsor police's deputy chief of operations Jason Bellaire.
COAST follows-up with people experiencing mental health crises well after an incident. It, however, does not respond to service calls in real time.
"One initiative that we've been working on for quite a while ... is a collaboration with our frontline mental health responders in our community," said Bellaire. "We're going to be working together on teams operating in real time out in the community."
The teams would consist of experts who specialize in mental health crisis management. The goal is to divert people away from police interactions or hospital emergency rooms and, instead, route them toward specialized help that is needed in times of a mental health crisis.
Unlike Toronto's 2022 pilot that would see mental health specialists attend some service calls on their own, Windsor's would be a "co-response model." That means teams of mental health specialists would respond and attend some service calls in tandem with emergency responders.
Windsor police would not disclose the names of the community partners it is working with until a memorandum of understanding has been signed, but said it would present a detailed plan to the Windsor Police Services Board within the next two or three months.
We're going to be working together on teams [of crisis management specialists] operating in real time out in the community.- Windsor police's deputy chief of operations Jason Bellaire
Despite the existence of the COAST, Bortolin said he believes police attend many service calls that should not require a police presence in the first place.
"There are many instances. I know this firsthand because I hear it from residents downtown. I hear it from business owners. They call police when somebody may just be having a mental health episode in front of their business," he said. "Is that a call that should be going to police? No."
"When 911 calls come in right now, it's fire, police or ambulance. We need a fourth option for crisis."
As for the COAST team, which primarily deals with individuals experiencing mental illness, many of its operations were stifled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Compared to the year prior, referrals to community agencies and visits by team members declined by about 60 per cent.
However, general follow-ups saw an uptick — going from 2,429 in 2019 to 2,715 in 2020, a 12 per cent increase.
For the first time, Windsor police has included race-based data in its 2020 use-of-force report as required by the province. However, there are no details on how many of these individuals were experiencing a mental health crisis at the time of the incident. Take a look:
"When we talk about defunding police, we need to over-invest in mental health, addictions, homelessness for a few years before we can have a serious conversation about defunding police," said Bortolin.
"After that overinvestment is there, we can then say, 'We're going to cut 10 per cent of the police budget because you no longer respond to X amount of calls.' That's where the data becomes really important, because if we're going to make decisions like that, we need to have the proper data."
During the meeting, Bortolin expressed concerns with instances of mental health crises not being clearly defined in Windsor police's use-of-force data. Use-of-force is considered any time an officer draws their gun or physically restrains an individual causing serious injuries.
- A previous version of this story suggested that Windsor police is proposing to have teams of mental health specialists attend 911 service calls on their own. Windsor police have since clarified to CBC News that they're looking to implement a "co-response model," meaning teams of mental health specialists would attend 911 service calls in tandem with emergency responders.Feb 19, 2021 6:01 PM ET