For several years, Vancouver police officers’ use of the B.C. Mental Health Act to detain people only went up. It was an alarming trend, because the act is used to restrict a person’s rights and freedoms despite them never having committed a crime.
In 2010, there were 2,276 VPD apprehensions under Section 28 of the act, which allows an officer to take an individual into police custody if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others. The number grew each year until 2015, when it hit 3,050.
The situation led former VPD chief Jim Chu and Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson to together declare a “mental-health crisis”.
But since 2015, Section 28s, as they’re referred to, have fallen sharply, to 2,822 in 2016 and now to a projected 2,754 in 2017.
In a telephone interview, VPD inspector Howard Tran, who heads the force’s mental-health portfolio, called it a “really good-news story”.
“I think there was a crisis, at one point,” he told the Straight. “But our calls for service have gone down, so I think we’ve got a bit of a handle on things. Although it is still a big issue.”
Tran said the significant drop in Section 28 apprehensions is largely the result of the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) program, which sees VPD officers accompany nurses and social workers to deliver mental-health care in communities where patients live. He explained that the VPD found a relatively small number of Vancouver residents were responsible for a hugely disproportionate number of Section 28 apprehensions.
“If we targeted the top 20 percent responsible for 80 percent of resources, what would happen?” Tran recalled asking himself before the program’s launch, back in 2012. “This is what’s happened.…Our ACT clients, who used to generate a lot of our Section 28s, they are responsible for a lot of the decrease.”
Tran said the VPD even ruled out other possible reasons for the decline in Section 28 apprehensions. For example, he said that some suspected that Vancouver’s fentanyl epidemic could have killed so many residents who struggle with a mental-health issue that fatal drug overdoses could account for the decline. But Tran said they discounted that theory and found their data tracking ACT clients' progress shows it is these individuals who are mostly responsible for the drop.
Despite some success, Tran cautioned that it is still too often that Vancouver police find themselves on the frontlines of the city’s mental-health-care system. He noted that so far this year, approximately 17.5 percent of all VPD incident reports include a mental-health component.
“Is it still a crisis?” Tran asked. “I don’t know. But that’s still a lot.”
Kendra Milne is a senior director of policy, planning, and government relations for the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). She told the Straight that she hopes the decline in Section 28 apprehensions means more people are receiving help before they reach the point of a crisis. But she said she can’t assume that’s what’s happening, because in the last five years, the region has not seen any significant improvement in treatment capacity.
Milnes suggested an alternative theory. “It is hard to ignore the fact that the timing of the decrease seems to correspond pretty closely with a real escalation in the overdose crisis,” she said.
In 2012, there were 65 fatal overdoses in the City of Vancouver, then 101 in 2014 and then 231 last year. In 2017, Vancouver is on track for close to 400 drug-overdose deaths. In response, the VPD has repeatedly said it now ranks fentanyl, the synthetic opioid driving the surge in deaths, among its top priorities, and is allocating resources accordingly.
Because police efforts are focused there, and because the treatment system remains largely unchanged from its condition five years ago, Milnes said she worries the decline in Section 28 apprehensions could “perhaps” mean people who experience a mental-health crisis are falling through the cracks.
“We have not seen a significant change in services recently in the Lower Mainland that would indicate that there has suddenly become far more accessible access or a real increase in supports,” she said. “And I think there is a pretty significant correlation in time, when you look at the coroner’s spike in deaths and the reduction in apprehensions.”
Doug King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, told the Straight that if the decline is the result of the ACT program, which is operated by Vancouver Coastal Health, that doesn’t necessarily mean the government has found the best solution to the problem of inadequate care.
“We have some significant concerns with ACT teams being integrated with police,” he said. “This [mental-health care] used to be solely a medical issue. When you integrated that service with police, how the police use that information can be problematic.”
Read the Straight's six-part series on mental-health care for marginalized citizens: Chasing a crisis: The challenge of caring for Vancouver’s severely mentally ill and addicted residents
Correction: A previous version of this article included an incorrect projection for Section 28 apprehensions in 2017; the correct number is 2,754, not 2,061 as previously stated.More