Lyle Richardson was a frustrating case for police officers. By his count, they were called to deal with him on “about a dozen” occasions between 1996 and 2008.
Most of those interactions were nonconfrontational, Richardson told the Georgia Straight during a drive near his home in New Westminster. But one of them almost killed him.
“I went on the SkyTrain with a crazy costume on, including carrying a toy gun,” he recounted. “The police thought I was attempting suicide by cop. In fact, I was just being playful.”
Richardson was eventually diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder and treated accordingly. Today, he works with police. Richardson participates on panels at the Justice Institute of B.C. He talks to new recruits about mental health, and he offers advice on how to de-escalate situations that involve an individual with a mental illness.
Those sessions are part of a mandatory mental-health component attended by every police trainee in the province. (RCMP recruits go through a similar program.)
B.C. law-enforcement agencies prepare their staff for work with the mentally ill. At the same time, the Vancouver Police Department has made it abundantly clear that it does not want its officers used as a frontline for mental-health care.
On September 13, one year will have passed since VPD chief Jim Chu stood alongside Mayor Gregor Robertson and called attention to the increasing frequency with which police are the first point of contact for people with mental-health challenges.
“The answer for someone suffering a mental-health crisis is not a cop with a gun,” Chu said then. “We need a shift from dealing with the crisis to preventing the crisis from occurring in the first place.”
Since then, the problem has gotten worse.
During the first six months of 2014, police made 1,470 apprehensions under Section 28 of the Mental Health Act, which permits officers to detain individuals deemed to have a mental disorder and to pose a threat to themselves or others. That number represents a five-year high, up from 1,145 in 2010.
Interviewed at VPD headquarters, spokesperson Const. Brian Montague said an average of eight arrests per day is a lot but is actually only a fraction of the time VPD officers spend responding to people with mental-health challenges. Many exchanges do not require a Section 28 apprehension, and a minority are elevated to criminal charges, he explained.
According to Montague, it is estimated that between 20 and 30 percent of all VPD interactions have some mental-health component to them. “That means about 100 to 150 incidents every day,” he said.
That translates to 18,000 to 27,000 VPD interactions with the mentally ill in just the first six months of 2014. (Update: Since the publication of this story the VPD has revised its estimates for daily interactions involving a mental health component. On September 11, the Straight reportedthat there are between 75 and 100 such incidents. That translates to 13,500 to 18,250 VPD interactions with the mentally ill in just the first six months of 2014.)
At an August 25 police conference in Victoria, Chu reiterated his call for assistance from the province. “People with mental-health issues need the health system, not the justice system,” he said.
At the same meeting, Terry Coleman, a 28-year veteran of the Calgary Police Service and an adjunct professor at the University of Regina, presented a national report on police interactions with the mentally ill.
In a telephone interview, Coleman told the Straight that the VPD’s Section 28 numbers are “much higher” than those of most jurisdictions. But he also praised B.C. police departments for acknowledging and responding to the fact that mental-health care has become a large part of an officer’s job.
Part of the reason that is the case, Coleman said, is the adoption of recommendations made by the Braidwood Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the 2007 in-custody death of Robert Dziekański. Among adopted proposals is a requirement that new recruits receive lessons on mental health. Today, those sessions account for 20 hours of a trainee’s 13 weeks of basic training. Topics emphasized include crisis intervention and de-escalation.
Coleman, however, argued that there is still room for improvement. For example, whereas police officers attend a “refresher” on mental health every three years, Coleman said he would like to see that program redefined as a “requalification”, similar to police requirements for firearms training.
He also noted that some departments allot more than 20 hours to mental-health training. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary on the east coast, for example, includes “about 40 hours” in its basic-training program, Coleman said.
Richardson similarly suggested that if as many as 30 percent of VPD calls involve a mental-health component, 20 hours on the topic might not be enough. “If that’s the case, I think they could use a little bit more training,” he said.
The power to dictate police-training requirements lies with the province. Both the B.C. Ministry of Justice and the RCMP refused repeated requests for interviews on the topic of mental health.
Steve Schnitzer is police-academy director for the Justice Institute of B.C., which trains recruits for the province’s 11 municipal police departments, Transit Police, and the Stl’atl’imx Tribal Police Service. In a telephone interview, he said that mandatory training on mental health is expected to be completed by every police officer in B.C. by 2015. However, Schnitzer also stressed that law enforcement is not a replacement for health care.
“We can train police officers to have a certain amount of skills where they can try their best to defuse situations, where they won’t judge a person, where they are going to try and get people help in an empathic way,” he said. “But we can’t train police officers to be psychologists.”
At VPD headquarters, Montague said he’s hopeful that Chu’s September 2013 call for help has at least made the province aware of the scale of the problem. But he was quick to add: “It’s not going to be a quick fix.”
“I’ve got about seven or eight years left on my career,” Montague said. “I’d like to say that I’m going to see a big change for the better before that time. But I’m skeptical.”
Chasing a crisis
This article is the first in a six-part series.
Part one: Vancouver police still seeking help to prevent a mental-health crisis
Part two: Amid a mental-health crisis, Vancouver care providers revisit the debate on institutionalization
Part three: Vancouver service providers fail to get ahead of a mental-health crisis
Part four: B.C. prisons lock mentally-ill offenders in isolation
Part five: Vancouver's ill and addicted lost in a mental-health care maze
Part six: Deaths involving police reveal a long pattern of mental illness and addiction