Vancouver mayor, police chief say city facing mental-health crisis

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was joined by police chief Jim Chu for the announcement on Friday morning.

Vancouver's mayor and chief of police are sounding the alarm about a mental health crisis.

Mayor Gregor Robertson and Chief Jim Chu held a news conference Friday to plead with the B.C. and federal governments for more resources to deal with people suffering from severe, untreated mental illness.

Police, often the front-line people in dealing with mentally disturbed people, see a growing problem, Chu said in a news release.

“The police are becoming the first point of contact for those who are severely mentally ill, and that is wrong," the chief said. "These people require health care, support, and medical treatment, not the criminal justice system."

“The police should not, and cannot, continue to be the first point of contact," added Robertson, who also chairs the Vancouver Police Board. "Lives are being put at risk and we need senior levels of government to step up and provide the resources they are responsible for.”

The mayor and chief made their comments as the VPD issued an updated version of its 2010 report on the growing failure of the mental health system to deal with the problem, creating a drain on police resources.

[ Related: Mental health crisis getting worse, says Vancouver mayor ]

"Recently there has been a worrisome increasing trend in persons exhibiting signs and symptoms of mental illness," says the report's executive summary.

"Within the past three years, the emergency department at St. Paul’s Hospital [which serves downtown Vancouver] has seen a 43 per cent increase in individuals with severe mental illness and/or addiction.

"Similarly, the VPD has experienced a significant increase in the number of section 28 Mental Health Act apprehensions. Between 2010 and 2012, section 28 apprehensions have increased by 16 per cent. It is expected that this trend will worsen in 2013 as year-to-date apprehensions have increased by 23 per cent.

"Furthermore, mental illness is believed to contribute to 21 per cent of incidents handled by VPD officers and 25 per cent of the total time spent on calls where a report is written."

The report says in the 1990s, the police department had the equivalent of 1.5 full-time employees assigned to deal with those suffering from mental illness and addiction. This year, it's more than 17 full-time employees.

When it comes to violent crime involving the mentally ill, the VPD said it has dealt with 96 serious incidents since January 2012, with the frequency of such calls increasing, the report says. Cases include an elderly woman being stomped on the head, several stabbings, including a man randomly eviscerated in front of a movie theatre, and assaults on children as young as three.

As recently as July, a man ran into a crowd of people leaving a Vancouver comedy show and opened fire with a handgun before shooting himself, the Vancouver Sun reported.

[ Related: Mental illness patients strain Canada's police forces ]

The issue of police being forced to confront people with mental health problems is by no means limited to Vancouver.

The shooting death of Sammy Yatim on an empty Toronto streetcar in July was perhaps an extreme example of the problem. The knife-wielding teenage immigrant for Syria died after refusing police commands to drop the small blade.

The Toronto Star noted the police's specialized mobile crisis-intervention team was not on duty at time, and that critics have pointed to several deaths of mentally ill persons armed with knives. The province's Ombudsman is investigating Ontario's policy on police training to de-escalate incidents involved disturbed people.

The Toronto Police Department's report this year on dealing with the emotionally disturbed said officers were dispatched on more than 19,000 such calls in 2011 and apprehended more than 8,600 people under the Mental Health Act.

It's a tiny fraction of total police encounters, the report says, and those thousands of calls resulted in two deaths and 62 serious injuries, figures the report paints in a positive light.

"These data demonstrate that in the overwhelming percentage of cases, officers are successful in resolving incidents safely and without resorting to apprehension or force," the report says.

[ Related: Families of police-shooting victims call for action in wake of Sammy Yatim’s death ]

The VPD report recommends governments fund 300 additional long-term and secure mental health treatment beds, more staffing at BC Housing sites to support tenants with psychiatric issues, more community outreach directed at released psychiatric patients and better urgent care for people in crisis.

"The VPD is too often responding to emergency calls involving persons experiencing a mental health crisis," the report says. "Often, the behaviour is criminal which results in the arrest and prosecution of mentally ill offenders.

"All stakeholders must shift from responding to the crisis to preventing the crisis from occurring in the first place."

Robertson, Chu and the head of Vancouver Coastal Health Authority wrote last month to B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Justice Minister Suzanne Anton, a former Vancouver councillor, about their concerns but say they have not yet received a reply, the Vancouver Sun reported.

"[The crisis is] one that we have grappled with for a number of years, but it has escalated to the point that we need to go public and state clearly that, today, Vancouver is embroiled in a public health crisis due to untreated, severe mental illness," Robertson told the news conference, according to the Sun.