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Winnipeg Police Accountability Coalition wants change in mental health response

A group of Winnipeg community-based organizations are calling for change in how mental health-related calls are responded to.

The Police Accountability Coalition (PAC) says the Alternative Response to Citizens in Crisis (ARCC) project by Winnipeg police and Shared Health is not working as well as initially thought. It is calling on the City of Winnipeg and Manitoba government to reverse ongoing funding commitments to ARCC.

“ARCC was tried, it was tried in good faith, but they did not do enough consultation,” Kate Kehler, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, said. “it presupposed that police must be the lead.”

Kehler added that the pilot project report “was problematic in many ways.”

“Success markers were set very low, for example.”

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The report shows that goals were generally measured as a success if there was at least a 10 per cent difference in an issue like reducing mental health presentations with police to hospital emergency departments for a mental health assessment.

“Police-led response to people with mental health illness result in both unnecessary trauma and the criminalization of illness-induced behaviour,” said Abdikheir Ahmed, co-chair of the Police Accountability Coalition.

“When police respond to a person in mental health crisis, as they are trained to respond to a typical criminal emergency situation with a show of force and authority, they may in fact escalate the crisis to a point of risking injury or death for police or the public.”

Such was the case for 19-year-old Afolabi Stephen Opaso, an international student who was shot and killed by Winnipeg police after experiencing a mental health crisis in his Winnipeg apartment building.

In a previous interview with Global News, Yemisi Opasa, Afolabi’s sister, said “They need to know how to respond to mental health crisis, because when someone is going through a mental health crisis, they do not even know what they are doing.”

Click to play video: 'Family of international student killed by Winnipeg police attend funeral, renew calls for answers'

Family of international student killed by Winnipeg police attend funeral, renew calls for answers

“From the audio I listened to, it wasn’t violent,” she said. “He wasn’t trying to do anything. But you know, we’ll leave that to the investigative departments to give us answers. We’re hoping that they are going to be tasked throughout this process, because there are better ways to respond to mental health crises.”

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Winnipeg police say Opaso was armed with a knife, but his family and friends say the outcome still should have been different.

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“That is not a licence to kill. People with mental health need to be helped different,” said Uche Nwankwo with AfriCans in South Winnipeg.

Ahmed said this is a scenario that has become all too common in racialized groups, leaving many reluctant to call 911.

“For people who are Indigenous, Black and have racialized backgrounds, the results are often casualties,” he said.

This is why the coalition wants to see a civilian-led, community-based crisis response system that could be accessed through 911 and 211.

Such a model exists in Toronto, operating 24-7 and responding to calls related to mental health crises, suicide, substance use and well-being checks.

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Winnipeg police in need of independent police oversight council, advocates say

The group says it could be staffed through experienced local organizations. Ahmed says the justice system and health-care system have “unresolved issues with systemic racism, sexism, ageism and genderism.”

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“In contrast, community-based organizations — while not immune to the above issues — can approach their work, and participants, from a place of equity and equality, place of care and a place of humanity. Given that they are more grounded in the communities they serve, they can adapt more quickly to changing and emerging needs,” he said.

Kehler said “it doesn’t always need to end in death.”

“That’s what the worst-case scenario is. But the ongoing harm of somebody needing help just getting the same response over and over again, feeling completely demoralized and dehumanized by an authoritative approach is a problem.”

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As it stands, Ahmed said as someone who has worked in mental health and is Black, it’s hard to say whether he would call 911 if he, or someone he knew, was in a mental health crisis.

“Often my answer would be (that) I will be very, very, very scared to call 911.”

Manitoba Justice Minister Matt Wiebe, said “we’re always open to ways that we can partner with community and with other groups who are interested and helpful in doing this work.”

He referenced a campaign promise by the NDP to bring forward 100 mental health workers, which “is going to really enable us to start engaging in some of those unique ways of deploying folks, and really bring in that idea of community being a part of the solution.”

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Global News reached out to the Winnipeg Police Service for comment but has not heard back.

— with files from Global’s Marney Blunt

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Interaction with Winnipeg officers that led to death of man too dangerous for ARCC team: police

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