Intervening with someone experiencing a mental health crisis should not be the sole responsibility of the police, according to a mental health intervention officer with Penticton RCMP.
Penticton RCMP Constable, and Mental Health Intervention Coordinator, James Grandy uses the example of a call out for an RCMP officer to attend to a person in distress.
Upon arrival, the officer notices that the person is clearly experiencing a mental health crisis, and the officer is faced with a choice; leave them, in the hope they won’t harm themselves or others, or take them to the hospital, possibly against their will, which could put either party at risk, or create distrust between them.
After drawing this scenario Grandy posed the question; should police be solely responsible for intervening in these situations? According to Const. Grandy the answer simply put is no.
“You have officers who are not trained in psychiatry or counselling, trying to make that decision… I think, 100 per cent, having mental health professionals with police is extremely effective. But you cannot just have one or the other,” said Const. Grandy.
Currently, in Penticton, a program like the Police and Crisis Team (PACT), which consists of a dedicated psychiatric nurse and specially trained RCMP officer, does not exist. Earlier in July, Interior Health (IH) announced they would not be expanding this program.
In Kelowna, Grandy explained, this program has been extremely effective, reducing the number of people being apprehended against their will.
RCMP officers, Grandy explained, are put in a tough position while responding to those with mental health issues.
“You have people saying, well, the police shouldn’t be going and doing those wellness checks, they shouldn’t be responding to those calls. Number one, there’s nobody else that’s going to do that, and in some cases, those people who are going through that crisis are either violent, or they’re at risk to themselves because they’re wanting to actually harm themselves.
“You’re not going to get a nurse or a social worker to go out there alone and try to mitigate that situation. They won’t be effective.”
Mental health intervention in Penticton
For years Const. Grandy has worked on the front lines in mental health intervention with the RCMP. Previously in Burnaby, Grandy spearheaded this program there, before filling that newly-created position in Penticton two years ago.
He works as a middle man between the police and the individuals officers deal within the community. His role assists those in crisis by pointing them toward the services they need.
That being said, Grandy is the only mental health intervention officer in the city of Penticton.
In the last four years, the Southeast District of the RCMP has seen an increase of 21 per cent in mental health check occurrences. In the first five months of 2020, the RCMP experienced 6,446 occurrences and in May the highest number ever of mental health check occurrences was recorded, totalling 1,456.
“The more times that police officers are trying to intervene with a mental health crisis, of course, you’re going to have times when it’s going to go south… we should be having more help with this problem,” said Grandy.
In a presentation to Penticton City Council on Tuesday, July 21, RCMP Superintendent Brian Hunter expressed his concern regarding those struggling with addictions and mental illnesses.
“It’s just very unfortunate a medical crisis is passed on to the laps of the police to deal with,” said Supt. Hunter to council.
Grandy furthered this point.
“The health authority needs to provide that resource for us. It can’t just be, well, you go out there and you assess, and you bring them to the hospital and then we’ll deal with it. No, that’s clearly not working well in some cases. There needs to be both police and health care on the ground when these things are occurring.”
In the South Okanagan, Grandy believes there’s room for expansion.
“Given the climate out there, I think anything’s possible, and I think people are looking for a change, they’re looking for a new way of doing business. And I would say, so are we.”
Grandy said upper management has been vocal about the necessity for this collaboration between health professionals and police.
Supt. Hunter said Tuesday he planned on soon discussing with Interior Health how they can make each other’s jobs ‘more enhanced’ in the interest of the safety of the community.
He noted at council that some of those in the community struggling with addiction and their mental health, have received emergency COVID-19 support payments from the federal government, potentially fuelling their addiction.
Supt. Hunter also spoke in favour of the decriminalization of possession of drugs for simple use.
Issues with addiction
Treatment, and rehabilitation, Supt. Hunter admitted is expensive, but is the key to help solve the addictions issue. Funding the services that clients need, he explained, could eventually lead to not needing the police as much.
“If you want all of this to go away, that’s where it (money) needs to go,” he said.
This issue is much more multifaceted than many think, Grandy explained.
“Our hope is that our local Interior Health will provide more resources for us going forward, so we’ll see where that goes, but that’s something we’re hoping for,” said Grandy. “Unfortunately we are just police officers, really, at the end of the day, we’re really designed to enforce criminal code and immediate public safety.
“We recognize we are being called to make a lot of tough decisions when it comes to people’s welfare on an everyday basis. In this day and age, we cannot work alone, and shouldn’t be working alone.”
In the past two months, RCMP have come under fire for how officers handle mental health checks. A woman in Kelowna and a woman in Chilliwack are accusing RCMP officers of assault during a wellness check.
The Kelowna woman, a UBC Okanagan student is now suing a Kelowna officer following the accusation.
In response to a request for comment, IH says they are meeting with partners to discuss services that support people in a mental health crisis.
“We share a commitment to continue to work together with police and others on effective solutions for people who require urgent mental health support. We must look at the whole picture, including the specific needs of communities and how to make the best use of available resources,” reads a statement by the health authority.
“Meetings scheduled in the coming weeks, including discussions with RCMP at the regional level, will provide an opportunity to review what is already in place and what may be needed to support the largest number of people in need of mental health support.”