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Police cite mental health stigma as drivers urge man on B.C. bridge to ‘take action’

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DELTA, B.C. - Police say drivers on the Alex Fraser Bridge outside Vancouver honked and yelled at a man in a mental health crisis standing outside the safety rail, with some encouraging him to "take action."

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DELTA, B.C. – Police say drivers on the Alex Fraser Bridge outside Vancouver honked and yelled at a man in a mental health crisis standing outside the safety rail, with some encouraging him to “take action.”

Delta Police acting Insp. James Sandberg suggested “stigma” surrounding mental health explained the reaction.

Officers closed the bridge’s southbound lanes Monday while officers negotiated with the man, who spent eight hours standing on a small platform before agreeing to come safely back to the other side.

The Alex Fraser Bridge is seen in Delta, B.C., on Thursday Dec.12, 2019. Police say drivers on the bridge honked and yelled at a man in a mental health crisis standing outside the safety rail, even encouraging him to "take action." THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

According to a police statement, some drivers walked up the bridge deck, interfered with the negotiations, and videoed or photographed the man.

One driver stuck in the gridlock went around vehicles maintaining the road closure, forcing officers to “disengage from the crisis,” the statement says, while another drove around barricades and was found to be impaired.

Sandberg said Wednesday that while he knows some drivers were frustrated by the closure, he doesn’t think they would have behaved the same way if the closure involved a fatal collision.

“An investigation into a fatal collision, conceivably, can be eight hours. I don’t think that we would have seen the same reaction on that as we did on the 23rd, two days ago,” he said.

“And the only difference being the nature of the event. Am I talking about mental health stigma? I would suggest so. The public behaviour that we saw, I believe, was likely directly related to the type of event we were investigating, or participating in.”

He said other drivers were supportive of the negotiation efforts and didn’t mind waiting.

Sandberg estimated Delta Police get calls about someone possibly in a mental health crisis on the Alex Fraser Bridge or heading toward the bridge “maybe as frequently as once a week.”

In Monday’s case, the officer involved in the negotiation was a specially trained crisis negotiator.

All Delta officers have provincially required training in crisis de-escalation as well as separate training developed by the police department, he said.

Sandberg said the curb lane is always closed so officers have somewhere to park when they are talking to someone, often on the sidewalk or sitting in their car on the bridge.

In this case, the man was already on the unprotected side of the railing when officers arrived and they had to talk to him from a further distance to keep the situation from escalating, he said.

Additional lanes had to be closed for safety and to reduce the noise so both sides could hear each other, he said.

After the man agreed to come back to the safe side of the bridge, he was taken to a hospital.

Police Chief Neil Dubord says he is proud of the work and commitment of all first responders.

“We also recognize that the bridge closure caused frustrations, and our team will review this incident with our partners to determine how we can lessen the future impact on the public,” he said in a statement.

— By Ashley Joannou in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.

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