A B.C. Coroners Service death panel review has found that front-line police are now a de facto part of the province’s mental-health system and should be overtly recognized as such.
The panel was charged with reviewing deaths that occurred during or within 24 hours of contact with police.
Titled Opportunities for Different Outcomes, the report found that police are already performing mental-health services and that the role of policing should be included in the province’s mental-health strategy.
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“Police in B.C. are responding to about 74,000 incidents annually involving mental health, and 18,000 of those fall under the Mental Health Act,” said panel chair Michael Egilson in a media release.
“These are situations where police officers de-escalate crisis situations and assess, triage and transport persons for emergency care to health services or to cells.”
According to the report, about 25 per cent of all police encounters now have a mental-health component.
“We need to drive home the point that the police have become part of the mental-health system and that their role needs to be acknowledged, supported and incorporated into the larger provincial mental-health and addictions strategy,” said Egilson.
The panel, made up of 19 experts with backgrounds in policing, police oversight, public health and mental-health and addictions services, looked at 127 deaths between 2013 and 2017.
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It found that many of the dead had mental-health or chronic addiction issues — factors that were a primary reason for which police were called to respond.
Half of those who died were exhibiting symptoms of mental-health issues at the time of contact with police, and many of the dead were living in rural or small communities, the report found.
It also found Indigenous people were disproportionately represented among the dead, making up 20 per cent of the fatalities while representing just six per cent of the population.
The report makes three key recommendations on how to reduce deaths.
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It suggests better co-ordination between health services and officers who respond to people in a mental-health crisis.
The report also recommends boosting access to mental-health assessment and police referrals to mental-health services.
Finally, the report recommends incorporating findings from police encounters with the public into regular police professional development.
This is not the first time officials have raised concerns about the role B.C. police officers are playing in the mental-health system.
Back in 2013, former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and former Vancouver police chief Jim Chu declared a “mental-health crisis” in the city and warned that officers on the front lines were being increasingly called on to address mental-health issues.
“It’s not something that’s going away,” said Egilson.
“Police for a long time have noted that mental health has been a growing part of their work.”