During the first half of 2015, the Vancouver Police Department saw a slight decline in the number of apprehensions its officers made under the B.C. Mental Health Act.
From January to the end of June, officers detained 1,510 people under Section 28 of the act, which allows police to take custody of an individual deemed mentally unfit and a threat to themselves or others.
That number compares to 1,534 apprehensions for the second half of 2014 and 1,476 for the first six months of last year.
In a telephone interview, VPD Sgt. Randy Fincham conceded that this statistic has maintained a steady climb for more than five years now. He called attention to a decrease in its rate of growth and described the latest number as “encouraging”.
A detailed breakdown going back to 2010 supports that characterization. It shows that increases in Section 28 apprehensions have usually ranged from 5 percent to 15 percent over the same period for the previous year.
The first quarter of 2015 saw a decline of 0.9 percent—the only decrease present in the more than five years’ worth of data—and the second-quarter increase was just 2.25 percent.
Fincham credited former VPD chief Jim Chu for making mental health a priority for the force. He added that Vancouver’s new chief, Adam Palmer, plans to continue with that focus.
“That’s our officers out there interacting with people, assessing people, and getting the help that they need,” Fincham said. "So just because the numbers are rising, it doesn’t mean there are more people out there suffering from a mental illness or mental-health crisis; it means that there’s more people getting access to resources.”
In February 2015, UBC associate professor Thomas Kerr coauthored a paper that raised questions about the VPD’s frequent application of the Mental Health Act. “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,” that paper concludes.
Reacting to the 2015 statistics, Kerr, a researcher with St. Paul’s Hospital and the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, told the Straight he remains skeptical of the VPD’s characterization of the numbers as indicative of a “mental-health crisis”.
“My concern is that we’re not doing an adequate job of distinguishing between who is simply intoxicated—and probably more in need of addiction treatment than emergency mental-health care—from the people who are having a true psychiatric emergency,” he said.
Kerr suggested the city could provide police with an alternative that lets officers take an intoxicated individual away from a public place without applying the Mental Health Act or a provision of the Criminal Code.
“We could create safe, contained spaces for people,” he said. Kerr noted that Insite does this for heroin users. He said an expansion of similar services could help lower police interactions with people who are high on other drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine.