Two prominent health researchers have published a report that concludes the Vancouver Police Department is unfairly linking mental illness to violent crime, thus exaggerating the need for “greater police control over those with mental health challenges”.
Since 2013, Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu has repeatedly called attention to what he describes as a “mental-health crisis”. The VPD has supported that characterization with a number of reports since 2008.
The February 2015 paper published in the academic journal Critical Public Health describes itself as the “first analysis to critically examine the VPD reports on mental health in Vancouver”. It is authored by Dr. Thomas Kerr and Jade Boyd, researchers both associated with UBC, St. Paul’s Hospital, and the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
The paper concludes: “The VPD reports contribute to a widening net of social control, rather than to the betterment of the lives of people living with mental illness.”
In a telephone interview, Kerr suggested that a number of issues are increasingly conflated with what the VPD is calling a mental-health crisis. He offered homelessness and addiction as examples.
“It’s more complicated than presented,” Kerr said. “The word crisis is maybe taking things a little too far.”
He noted he agrees more resources should go to mental health, but argued that instead of spending more on policing, money could be more effectively directed to support services such as housing.
The study focuses on four police documents that, Kerr and Boyd note, are widely cited in City of Vancouver policies concerning housing, homelessness, and addiction.
“The VPD reports…shift discourse and practice away from health and community supports, social supports, livable housing and peer-run organizations for those most affected,” it states. “Reinstitutionalization and secure units in hospitals are assumed to be a solution, alongside increased surveillance. Thus, the VPD’s production of the mental health crisis and their proposed solutions have material effects.”
Kerr and Boyd’s report goes on to note the VPD’s calls for additional resources for mental-health calls have come as cities have grown safer.
“The same time that homicide rates and violent crime rates are low and steadily declining in Vancouver and the rest of Canada,” it reads, “the VPD is pushing forward recommendations for increased surveillance and police presence in Vancouver in response to escalating dangers arising from the ‘mental health crisis’.”
In that context, the report describes an “expansion of criminal justice and the blending of criminal justice and mental health policy in Canada”.
“The Province of BC and Vancouver Coastal Health have cut back on peer-run services for people with mental health concerns,” it states. “Meanwhile, the VPD budget continues to rise each year.”
In a telephone interview, Sgt. Randy Fincham told the Straight that in 2014, the VPD recorded 3,010 apprehensions under the Mental Health Act, up 32 percent from 2,278 in 2010.
“We’re basing our information on statistical analysis,” he said. “We see it on a daily basis and we have empirical evidence to back up how much time we’re spending dealing with these issues.”
The spokesperson for the force added the VPD has consistently emphasized it should not be the agency responsible for people struggling with a psychological illness.
“The front line of defence for somebody dealing with a mental-health disorder is not a policeman with a badge and a gun,” he said. “It should be medical services providing assistance to these people.”