Does more funding for police mean no funding for real mental health first responders?

Acting Police Chief Don MacLean wants more money for more cops to handle those requiring involuntary psychiatric treatment. Except that’s not quite true. He just wants more front-line cops. Who will care for those in mental health crisis? And who will pay for it?

“To be clear,” Acting Halifax Police Chief Don MacLean said, being all too clear during a Halifax board of police commissioners meeting last week, “if this board could collectively wave a magic wand right now and I was out of the mental health business tomorrow morning, my ask isn’t going to change.”

His $4-million personnel ask — part of the department’s proposed $98.1-million 2024-25 budget — is for “12 officers for patrol, six officers for community response, one constable for a hate crime unit, one sergeant and one constable for the police science program, and two civilian investigators for the background and security clearance unit.”

Let’s start with what sounds like a generic request for more patrol officers. It isn’t. Not exactly. According to last month’s official budget documents, the department needs more patrol constables “to address the continuing issue of lengthy hospital wait times under the [Involuntary Psychiatric Treatment Act], as well as much-needed support for general patrol duties.”

We’ll come back to the “as well as…”

Let’s focus first on the involuntary treatment act. That act is designed …

… to assist persons who have a mental disorder or severe mental illness, and:

  • are a danger to themselves or others, or are at risk of becoming a danger to themselves or others.
  • need to be cared for in a safe and supervised environment (as an in-patient in a hospital).
  • are not able to make decisions about their care.

The IPTA does not apply to people who can make decisions for themselves (are ‘competent’).

Let’s dig a little deeper into the process of how that unfolds.

Anyone can make a written request under oath to have someone else committed or forced to undergo a medical examination for any of the above reasons. A judge of the Supreme Court’s Family Division then holds a hearing to determine whether to issue an order. The order is only good for seven days, and during that time, “a psychiatrist or other doctor must examine the person.”

Where do the police come into this process? “A police officer and/or someone named by the judge in the order will be required to take the person for the medical examination.”

What that means in practice, according to Police Commissioner Lindell Smith, is that Halifax Regional Police officers and RCMP members in Halifax spent a combined total of 5,359 hours last year waiting in the hospital for those committed under the act to be seen by a doctor.

Put another way, that’s more than 150 weeks of officer time each year devoted simply to transporting and babysitting patients at their medical appointments.

Is that the best use of officer time? More importantly, are those officers specially trained to deal with people in a mental health crisis?

No. And no.

But back to the chief:

Those [additional] officers are not about responding to mental health calls. That’s one piece of it. It was meant to highlight, as part of the data and the justifications and rationale articulated in terms of trying to mitigate against some of the issues we have.

Really, it’s not about going to mental health calls. What it was about was having a pilot [program] with the hospital where we could have less officers in that space covering more [patients] at one particular time.

So, that would free up the frontline response, which has been my priority from the start.

Uh… OK. So, what Chief MacLean seems to be suggesting is that he wants more officers. Period.

With luck — and the willingness of hospital authorities — he could deploy fewer of them to babysit those involuntary patients waiting to be seen by a doctor, freeing up “frontline response, which has been my priority from the start.”

So, back to where we started. Chief MacLean wants more officers.

Which should leave the rest of us with a bunch of questions.

Should we really be continuously shovelling more cash into the police department budget — under the guise of supporting people in mental health crises — at a time when the city is still in the middle of trying to figure out a future for policing? A future that doesn’t necessarily visualize the police being at the centre of dealing with people’s mental health issues?

Consider last spring’s weighty Policing Transformation Study Recommendation Report, for example. It referred to an aspirational “cultural shift” whereby…

the police service does not take on the responsibility for delivering all services and interventions, but instead works on commissioning services from community partners who are trained to achieve better outcomes for certain vulnerable groups. This could be applied for incidents involving mental health crises, addiction, youth crime and diversion, community trauma, and domestic violence, amongst others. Services could be delivered in partnership with police, independently by other agencies, or jointly by leveraging police assets and/or systems based on assessment and coordination through a formal commissioning capability.

It is still under consideration.

And then there was the 2022 Defunding the Police: Defining the Way Forward for HRM report, which also recommended “divert[ing]the majority of crisis calls to non-police-involved teams.” And which is still supposedly being considered.

During a November 22 police commission meeting, in fact, most of the 40 citizens who spoke about this latest police budget request opposed it, some citing those ongoing discussions about the future of policing and its relation to dealing with those in mental health emergencies.

Noting that the police budget request went against the recommendations of the Defund report, Natasha Hines, a board member from Wellness Within, told commissioners: “Folks do not need an increasingly militarized police force responding to mental health distress, substance use disorder and gender-based violence. Police presence has been shown to add violence to what can be an already violent situation. These folks need care, they may need medical attention, and police may not be the right response here.”

So why are we funding the police to do this?

The complicating factor, of course, is that police officers have become de facto responders under the current provincial law that mandates police “and/or someone named by the judge” be involved in the involuntary commitment process. That’s what ties up officers doing work they’re mostly not trained to do. And that, ultimately, is what needs to change.

At the end of that board of police commissioners’ meeting, in fact, Commissioner Lisa Blackburn introduced a motion calling for the Halifax Regional Police chief and the chief of the RCMP to work with HRM’s CAO “to explore options with the province of Nova Scotia with respect to alternatives to the legislated use of police officers in mental health crisis situations.” Explained Blackburn:

We have to come at this with an agreed set of facts, and one of them is that it is provincial legislation that a sworn officer be in attendance at the hospital when someone in a mental health crisis is brought in. That is a change that can only be made at a provincial level. I would like to see us be able to work with the province to make this legislative change because the status quo is not working for anybody.”

The motion passed. That’s good.

But at its next meeting, the board, with minor, meaningless changes, also approved Chief MacLean’s request for $4-million worth of new cops.

What will happen if the province does agree to the city’s request to tweak its legislation and makes trained social workers, for example, the real first responders for these mental health calls?

Will the police chief reduce his next ask?

Not a chance? His ask, as he says, “isn’t going to change.”

So, where will the money come from to pay for those trained and more appropriate social workers?

Good question.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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