New Winnipeg police pilot project for mental health crises under fire for being police-led

A new police pilot project will ensure people who call Winnipeg’s 911 emergency line in the midst of a mental health crisis will be seen by a specialized support worker, but some community organizations say police shouldn’t be involved at all.

The Alternative Response to Citizens in Crisis project will pair an armed police officer in plain clothes with a mental health clinician, Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth announced on Monday. The teams will be sent out after uniformed police check on the situation to determine it’s safe.

Four full-time officers coming from the vulnerable persons and community relations units will be paired with a pool of clinicians over a 12 hour period Monday to Friday.

“We have limited resources to try this pilot, as much as we’d like to go 24/7, we’ve cobbled together what we can,” Smyth said.

Insp. Chris Puhach said the pilot will launch in December and will run for one year.

“We would expect to see an overall reduction in police calls for service as well as an increase in participation in services offered to them,” he said.

But the Police Accountability Coalition a community — a group representing more than 90 Winnipeg community organizations who are calling for greater action to address police violence and systemic racism — believe this initiative shouldn’t be headed by police.

Unit must be independent of police

Louise Simbandumwe, the co-chair of the Police Accountability Coalition, wants to see a program that’s completely independent of police.

“We would like to have the option of being able to call a crisis-response unit with people who are trained, that are not connected to the police, in order for particularly racialized, Indigenous, vulnerable community members that we’re working with to feel safe and confident that if we’re calling for assistance, they won’t be further victimized,” she told CBC News.

“What we would like to see … is a reallocation of resources from a police-based response to a community-based response.”

Louise Simbandumwe is the co-chair of the Police Accountability Coalition. The coalition is calling for community groups to spearhead this pilot project, not the police. (Submitted by Louise Simbandumwe)

The coalition says there are deep-seated issues regarding systemic racism in police forces across Canada, including Winnipeg’s.

“There is a need for profound systemic change and that hasn’t happened.”

Follow-up after crisis

In 2020, Winnipeg police did 18,991 well-being checks, making it the most common reason for calling police.

That same year, officers made 2,102 trips to a health-care facility with people in crisis and spent about 3,533 hours, or the equivalent of 147 days, waiting to turn the person over to clinical staff.

“This can be an additional trauma or trigger for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis and it often doesn’t allow for the needed connections to other resources, either across the health system or in the community,” said Dr. James Bolton, the medical lead of Shared Health Crisis Response Services.

He said the goal is to help people who are in crisis frequently with more consistent follow up care including treatment and housing.

Chris Summerville, the CEO of Schizophrenia Society of Canada believes this is a step forward.

“Many of us in the mental health community have been seeking better ways to help people who are in urgent need of care … This will be a more compassionate response, it will be more person-centred, it’ll be trauma-informed,” he said in an interview on Monday.

But Simbandumwe says the pilot is at best an acknowledgement that there’s a need for the skill set to address mental health crises.

“What we’re saying very emphatically is that what we need is a unit that’s independent of the police and is able to address and de-escalate situations using a different set of tools,” she said.

“The concern is that if the police is in control of the situation, that their dominant approach will still be what prevails, as opposed to a response that more meets where community is at and where the needs are actually manifested.”

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