A leading Manitoba mental-health advocate is lauding senior local and national law-enforcement officials after they called Wednesday for government to "step up" and provide adequate care to the mentally ill and reduce an extreme source of strain on police.
"It shows great leadership," Nicole Chammartin said of a firmly stated public position advanced by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) as it wrapped up a three-day conference in Winnipeg.
"It's time to focus on how to keep people out of crisis in general... I think that's the critical piece," said Chammartin, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Winnipeg.
Joined by city police Chief Devon Clunis, CACP president and Vancouver police Chief Const. Jim Chu said police are too often being tapped as the first-call resource to deal with mentally ill people who may be a danger to themselves or others.
Chu said Mental Health Act-related interventions by police in Vancouver have jumped from 529 in 2002 to a staggering 2,636 this year alone.
It wouldn't be surprising if there were a similar increase in Winnipeg in the same period, said Chammartin.
The uptick has happened, Chu said, because a policy shift to move the mentally ill out of secure settings has left many on the street without adequate care or access to help.
"That's wrong for these people who deserve better care," Chu said.
The onus is on government and the health-care system -- not police -- to care for the mentally ill, he added.
Police in Canada have taken steps to provide greater training on how to handle and resolve mental health-related incidents peacefully, in some cases adding mental-health-care practitioners to police units, Chu said. But more must be done and it can't fall on the shoulders of cops.
"We're speaking up. We're talking about this and saying, 'this is wrong,'" said Chu.
Clunis said locally, police have been engaged in "practical" discussions with several community partners and are close to announcing a new "community health" strategy for Winnipeg. He declined to talk specifics.
"It will be a comprehensive approach to policing and community health in the City of Winnipeg," Clunis said, adding some of its various pieces are already up and running.
He readily conceded police in the past have taken on too much when it comes to contending with social problems.
"We can't do it on our own," he said.
Clunis hinted the forthcoming new model involves LiveSafe, a crime-prevention strategy the city began work on in 2008 in consultation with senior government staffers and community agencies.
Components of LiveSafe included adding family and life-skills resource hubs in high-risk neighbourhoods and an expansion of free recreational resources for youth. Police have also been looking into how to increase safety at Manitoba Housing properties.
The province recently opened a "problem-solving" mental health court after many years of talking about it. As well, the government officially opened a 24/7 mental-health crisis centre in June.
Chammartin said mental-health crises typically strike when people don't have proper day-to-day services they can access quickly.
Until that reality changes, police will always have a role to play, she said.