Police and health professionals will pair up in an attempt to improve the response to mental health emergencies throughout Winnipeg, a role previously left up to law enforcement alone.
A one-year pilot project called "Alternative Response to Citizens in Crisis" will offer the new partnership to respond to designated 911 calls sometime in December, though no exact date was confirmed.
The new program follows a longstanding concern a surge in mental health calls is tying up police resources, as well as some citizen claims non-police staff would be better suited to help residents who are experiencing mental distress.
"Clinical intervention in the community should lead to better access to services and support," Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said Monday. "That is the goal of this pilot project: providing better access to service without clogging up our emergency rooms or tying up police resources unnecessarily."
Once the project is in place, a unit of two uniformed officers will still be tasked to provide the first response to well-being calls directed to police. Those officers will assess the situation and call for a team response to follow, if that’s deemed a needed and safe option.
In such cases, a plainclothes officer would accompany a mental health clinician (occupational therapist, nurse, social worker or other specialized professional).
Smyth said the initial police response is needed to ensure support can be provided safely.
"Encountering people in crisis can often be really unpredictable, and you never know when people will act in a way that could either put themselves or others in danger. There are benefits to partnering a police officer with a health clinician. Police can ensure a safe environment so that the clinician can intervene much more quickly," he said.
Since well-being checks made up the largest category of local calls to police last year, surging to 18,991, the teams are expected to be very busy, said WPS Insp. Chris Puhach.
"We know that well-being calls for service have been increasing over time and last year... was the highest ever," said Puhach.
Last year, police spent a total of 3,533 hours, or 147 days, waiting to transfer people in crisis to clinical staff.
During the pilot program, the teams will operate from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday. Police say it’s meant to test the idea at an affordable cost. The unspecified price for the pilot project will be entirely covered by the existing WPS budget.
While police did not specify the exact scenarios when a police/clinician pair could be called in, Puhach said the response could follow a vast variety of self-harm, substance use and other mental health concerns.
In addition to emergency calls, WPS said police will proactively help connect those experiencing chronic mental health issues with more long-term community supports.
Smyth said plainclothes officers partnered with clinicians will be armed.
"They never know what they are going to encounter in the field. So we really wouldn’t put them into a situation where they didn’t have tools to deal with whatever they might encounter," the WPS chief said.
Dr. James Bolton, medical lead with Shared Health Crisis Response Services, said the ability to send mental health experts to meet with folks right at their homes or wherever else they experience a crisis, should improve treatment outcomes.
"Evidence shows that timely intervention to crises can have a significant impact on an individual’s care and recovery," said Bolton.
However, a group lobbying for city hall to reduce the police budget to free up more cash for community services called the new pilot project "a step in the wrong direction."
"I think community has been extremely clear that we want less policing, not more policing, especially for well-being checks," said Joe Curnow, a member of Budget for All.
Curnow said a police presence can escalate distress for some folks, instead of calming them down. She said the program should instead connect those in crisis with social service providers only.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.