Calls for sobering centres unanswered five years after Frank Paul report
Five years have passed since former B.C. Supreme Court judge William Davies issued a series of recommendations following the death of Frank Paul, an aboriginal man who died from hypothermia after police left him severely intoxicated in an East Vancouver alley.
Authorities have implemented reforms. Most notably, British Columbia now has a civilian-led Independent Investigations Office. Nevertheless, a number of organizations remain unsatisfied. Among them are the Elizabeth Fry Society, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, and Pivot Legal Society. Pivot began a campaign this month calling for recommendations of the Davies Commission of Inquiry Into the Death of Frank Paul to finally be implemented in full.
According to Pivot’s policing campaigner, Doug King, several of the commission’s most important proposals have been ignored.
“When you look at the practical change between the present day and what happened with Frank Paul, I don’t think that you can say that the system is dramatically changed,” King told the Georgia Straight. “We’re not actually presenting the services that Judge Davies said that we really need to create.”
Chief among Pivot’s demands, and one of Davies’s main recommendations, is the establishment in Vancouver of a stand-alone, civilian-operated sobering centre: a place where severely intoxicated individuals can spend the night instead of in a drunk tank or hospital. There’s already a model for such a facility just next door, King noted, in Surrey.
In a telephone interview, the Fraser Health Authority’s Kevin Letourneau explained what happens when an intoxicated individual arrives at Surrey’s Quibble Creek Sobering and Assessment Centre.
“They show up at the front door, get buzzed in, and a nurse is there to do a head-to-toe assessment,” he began. Patients are given a pair of pyjamas, a blanket, and a mat on which they’ll spend the night, Letourneau continued. In the morning, they receive a snack before they leave.
According to Letourneau, Quibble Creek does roughly 600 intakes a month (including a large number of repeat visits).
On a website maintained by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, there’s a list of 18 in-custody deaths between 2006 and 2010 that the UBCIC states might have been preventable had B.C. had more sobering centres.
There is a sobering centre in Vancouver. It’s connected to a Vancouver Coastal Health detox facility on East 2nd Avenue just east of Main Street. But David Dennis, president of the Frank Paul Society, argues that its five beds (compared to Quibble Creek’s 25) are “so inadequate”.
Dennis told the Straight that the issue of police interactions with chronic alcoholics extends beyond big cities.
“It is a problem that affects every community, from Vancouver to Tofino to Prince Rupert to small detachments,” he said. “Those numbers will continue to remain at that level until the province makes a determined effort to put action behind the inquiry.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, similarly argued that problems related to Davies’s report are systemic.
“Like many commission recommendations, they tend to gather dust on the shelf, and such is the case with this,” he said. “It is outrageous and it’s disgraceful. But it’s not an LNG issue, so the government doesn’t have any time for it.”
B.C. Housing directed inquiries to the Ministry of Health, which deferred questions to Vancouver Coastal Health.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Ronald Joe, associate medical director of addictions for VCH, said it is estimated that there are 50 to 150 severe drinkers in Vancouver.
According to Joe, the Davies report was published in February 2009, and by September of that year, VCH had developed new practical guidelines for the management of chronic alcoholics.
Shortly after, it launched a number of managed-alcohol programs and created outreach teams that provide assistance to alcoholics in the city’s homeless communities. Joe also noted that the sobering centre at 2nd Avenue’s Vancouver Detox saw more than 2,000 intakes in 2013.
He conceded that the number of beds at Vancouver Detox has remained at five since before Frank Paul died in 1998—Paul himself had used the centre more than 100 times, Joe noted. But he claimed that capacity is not an issue and that staff report nobody is being turned away.
The Vancouver Police Department also emphasizes that reforms have been implemented in response to Davies’s findings.
According to Const. Brian Montague, severely intoxicated individuals brought to jail are seen by a nurse upon arrival. Before an individual is released, assessments are made of health, the conditions outside, and additional factors, such as the suitability of clothing.
King maintained that a greater, unresolved concern is that alcohol addiction remains a challenge primarily dealt with by law enforcement as opposed to health authorities.
“The question that we have to answer is, did we solve the problems that we had with Frank Paul?” King asked.