Monday, March 27, 2023

Police forces across Canada need help to deal with people in mental health crisis

Pat and Irene Heffernan have found relief from the death of their son several times.

On March 16, 2015, after officers were called to a Calgary motel, 27-year-old recovering drug addict Anthony Heffernan was shot four times by police—including three bullets to the head and neck.

Officials said Heffernan was behaving strangely as he stood by the beds with a lighter and a syringe, and did not obey orders to release them.

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, which reviews serious actions by police, conducted an investigation but no charges were filed.

Heffernans wonders what would happen if there was a mental-health professional.

“You had five heavily armed officers. It’s just a nightmare story. You can’t make it,” Heffernan’s mother, Irene, told her home in Prince Albert, Sask.

Pat Heffernan said his son was in trouble and it was a mistake for officers to enter the hotel room.

“It seems they are trying to escalate the situation instead of de-escalating it. If they had calmly gone inside and talked to them, it would have been a completely different story,” he said.

“What we wanted out of this whole thing is that it didn’t happen to other people. We were naive to think that this was something that rarely happened.”

A 2021 study in the Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being found that 75 percent of police-involved civilian deaths in Canada involved a person experiencing a mental-health crisis or who was under the influence of a substance.

‘Last resort’: Police force struggling to help those in distress. #police #mental health

It said police officers used force about two percent of the time.

Psychologist Patrick Bailey, who consults for the Calgary Police Service, supports more officer training. He said mental-health professionals are paired with officials, but only sent as secondary feedback after a safety assessment.

“The early, most cost-effective … (approach) is training of officers, better access to mental-health professionals, more officers to consult 24 hours a day than anyone can call,” Bailey said.

“If there was a larger core of clinical social workers, maybe a psychiatrist or two, that would help as well.”

Bailey said police in Memphis have dispatchers trained to recognize mental-health calls and that about 20 percent of officers have been taught how to deal with people in distress.

Bailey acknowledged that mental-health resources can be difficult to obtain.

“We deal with an increasing number of mental-health calls because of people who have fallen, not through the cracks, but through the cavernous holes in our systems.”

Last year, police in Lethbridge, Alta. reported a 19 percent drop in use of force encounters compared to 2020. Some 28 percent of the subjects were in a state of distress at the time.

Acting Staff Sergeant Rick Semenuik said the service added a second mental-health professional to pair with officers.

“It’s been very helpful. I can speak from personal experience,” he said.

“He had a relationship with that person and talked to him and never used any force. It was done peacefully every time.”

Semenuik said Lethbridge officials receive mental-health training annually and focus on communicating with those who are going through the crisis.

Police in Vancouver began a program called CAR 87 in 1978, which recruited a constable with a registered nurse or psychiatric nurse to provide on-site assessments and interventions for people with mental illness – when there is no safety risk. Team.

Sergeant Steve Edison said frontline officers deal with more serious cases.

“There’s a huge mental-health crisis here in Vancouver. Our officers are dealing with people who are living … in psychosis, struggling very frequently,” he said.

“They are often coming into contact with police officers … because they are falling through the cracks. They are not getting the support they need further down the line.”

Edison said Vancouver police have been vocal about the need to provide social support for people with mental health issues, addictions, poverty and homelessness.

“We are the first responders, but we are also the last resort for people in distress, so at 3 a.m. when someone is in psychosis and waving around a sword or feeling suicidal or hanging on the side of a bridge, who is called? is?”

Edison said specialist officers in crisis negotiations are deployed several times a day when someone is suicidal, experiences an extreme mental-health episode or poses a public safety risk.

“We’ll be the first to call for more support for people who are living with these very complex needs so they don’t have to come into contact with the police, which is often a mental-health issue.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 8, 2022.

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