Police forces struggle to provide support to people in crisis – Bilan Keremeos
Pat and Irene Heffernan relived their son’s death several times.
Anthony Heffernan, a 27-year-old man recovering from drug addiction, was shot by police four times – including three bullets to the head and neck – after officers were called to a Calgary motel on 16 March 2015.
Officers said Heffernan behaved strangely as he stood by the beds with a lighter and a syringe, and did not obey orders to drop them.
Alberta’s Serious Incident Response Team, which reviews serious police actions, investigated, but no charges were laid.
The Heffernans wonder what would have happened if a mental health professional had been there.
“You had five heavily armed officers. It’s just a nightmare story. You can’t make it up,” said Heffernan’s mother, Irene, from her home in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
Pat Heffernan said her son was in crisis and officers breaking into the hotel room were a mistake.
“It seems they are trying to escalate the situation rather than defuse it. If they had come in calmly and spoken to him, it could have been a totally different story,” he said.
“What we wanted from all of this was that it didn’t happen to other people. We were naive thinking it was something that rarely happened.
A 2021 study published in the Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being found that 75% of civilian deaths involving police in Canada involved someone in a mental health crisis or under the influence of a substance.
He said officers used force about two percent of the time.
Psychologist Patrick Baillie, who consults for the Calgary Police Service, supports increased officer training. He said mental health professionals teamed up with officers, but were only dispatched as a secondary response after a security assessment.
“The initial, most cost-effective approach … (the approach) is agent training, better access to mental health professionals, more agents to do round-the-clock consultations who could call someone” , said Baillie.
“If there was a larger core of clinical social workers, maybe a psychiatrist or two, that would also help.”
Baillie said Memphis police have dispatchers trained to recognize mental health calls and about 20% of officers have been trained to deal with people in crisis.
Baillie acknowledges that getting mental health resources can be difficult.
“We end up facing an increasing number of mental health calls, because of people who have fallen, not through the cracks, but through the cavernous holes that we have in our system.”
Police in Lethbridge, Alta., saw a 19% drop in use-of-force encounters last year compared to 2020. Some 28% of subjects were in crisis at the time.
Acting Staff Sgt. Rick Semenuik said the service has added a second mental health professional to pair with officers.
“It was very helpful. I can speak from personal experience,” he said.
“They had a relationship with the person and they spoke to him and there was never any force used. It was done calmly each time.
Semenuik said officers in Lethbridge receive mental health training every year and focus on communicating with those going through a crisis.
Vancouver police started a program in 1978 called Car 87, which pairs a police officer with a registered nurse or psychiatric nurse to provide on-site assessments and interventions – when there is no safety risk – for people living with mental illness.
sergeant. Steve Addison said frontline officers deal with more serious cases.
“There is a huge mental health crisis here in Vancouver. Our officers come across people who are living … in psychosis, who are struggling very frequently,” he said.
“They frequently come into contact with police officers…because they fall through the cracks. They don’t get the upstream support they need.
Vancouver police have expressed a need to provide social support for people struggling with mental health, addictions, poverty and homelessness, Addison said.
“We’re the first responders, but we’re also the last resort for people in crisis, so at 3 a.m. when someone’s in psychosis waving a sword or feeling suicidal or hanging off the edge of a bridge , who is called ? “
Specialized officers with expertise in crisis negotiation are deployed several times a day when someone is suicidal, experiencing an episode of extreme mental health or poses a risk to public safety, Addison said.
“We will be the first to ask for more support for people living with these very, very complex needs, so that they don’t have to come into contact with the police for what is often a mental health issue.”
Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press
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