In 2013, former Vancouver police chief Jim Chu described the city’s struggle to care for people with severe and untreated mental illness as a “growing crisis”. Now, seven years of data obtained by the Straight shows that the problem has essentially plateaued, no longer getting worse but also not improving.
One indicator that the VPD uses to track its work in this area is the number of apprehensions it logs under Section 28 of the B.C. Mental Health Act. That legislation allows officers to take a person into custody if they are deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others.
From 2010 to 2014, VPD apprehensions under the act increased between five and 10 percent each year, from 2,278 to 3,010.
They then levelled off when there were 3,050 apprehensions in 2015 and 3,026 projected for 2016 (based on data covering the first six months of this year).
In a telephone interview, VPD spokesperson Sgt. Randy Fincham maintained that the numbers are a “good thing”.
“It shows us that we are engaging with the right people and getting them the help that they need,” he said.
Fincham explained that a Section 28 apprehension is different from an arrest in that it usually ends with an individual admitted to a hospital as opposed to a jail cell.
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 2016 statistics, Kerr, a researcher with St. Paul’s Hospital and the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, told the Straight he suspects the VPD may be using the Mental Health Act to detain individuals whose primary problem is not a mental-health challenge but rather is an addiction issue.
“We are over-relying on the police and the mental-health system to deal with, in many cases, what are addicted individuals,” Kerr said. “That’s not really where they belong.”
He argued that calls into question the extent to which the VPD’s Section 28 numbers for 2015 and 2016 are really good news.
“I think it raises questions about the overall structure that leads to these apprehensions,” Kerr said. “We don’t share the view that there is this major mental health crisis. We think there is a crisis of untreated addiction.”
D J Larkin, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, was critical of the situation revealed by the data but was quick to emphasize that she doesn’t place the blame entirely on the VPD.
“Seeing the statistics start to even off is a good thing,” she told the Straight. “But they’ve evened off at an already increased and concerning high number. So I can’t say wholeheartedly that it’s good news. But it’s progress.”
Larkin argued that the larger issue is inadequate provincial funding for preventive and support services.
“Social services and mental-health supports are what is needed to deal with mental-health issues,” she said. “It’s really unfortunate that the police are taking the frontline on this.”