WINNIPEG police Chief Danny Smyth has fended off criticism of a pilot project that pairs a plainclothes officer with a clinician to deal with mental-health emergencies.
He told the police board the pilot, which will start this month, is an attempt by police to de-escalate crisis situations and intervene sooner. He said working with clinicians will get people in need into care faster.
But the one-year Alternative Response to Citizens in Crisis program doesn’t sit well with an anti-police group.
Winnipeg Police Cause Harm member James Wilt suggested the program was "conveniently timed" to be released in the middle of budget proceedings.
"I don’t think that kind of service should be provided by police at all. I think it should be completely parcelled out to an organization that has nothing to do with the police, and this is something that a lot of mental health advocates have been calling for for a very long time… many people do not feel safe when police, whether they’re plainclothes or not, show up at their door," he said Friday.
"You’re getting a viewpoint from an abolitionist that has no value for the police. They will never agree to anything that involves the police," he said.
"When I work within the community with other agencies… they actually want us present, they don’t feel safe taking on some of these things on their own."
Uniformed officers will continue to be the first to respond to well-being calls. Under the pilot, police will call for a team that includes an armed plainclothes officer and a mental-heath clinician — occupational therapist, nurse, social worker or other specialized professional — to follow up with the person in crisis, if needed.
"Initiatives are being undertaken to address the concerns that (Winnipeggers) have raised in terms of making sure that individuals that are in crisis with mental health and addictions have an alternative response, and a better outcome to their crisis," Winnipeg Police Board chair Markus Chambers said Friday.
Another person who appeared before the police board on Friday said the shooting of a teenager at a city 7-Eleven in 2019 wouldn’t have been avoided had the pilot project been in operation at that time.
"I don’t see the usefulness whatsoever of mental-health care providers attending to people who require mental-health care with an undercover police officer. I’m not sure how the presence of an undercover police officer aids in the provision of mental-health care," Owen Toews said.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.