This is the first of three stories in a special report. This story looks at three police detachments on southern Vancouver Island and how they're calling for change in dealing with mental health calls.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in Langford, police officers are responding to multiple mental health calls in a row while trying to juggle high-priority calls.
It’s just after 12 p.m. on May 21 and a West Shore RCMP officer has just apprehended a man under B.C.'s Mental Health Act out of concern that he's going to harm himself.
“We received a call from a woman reporting an associate of hers was feeling suicidal and making comments about hurting himself,” says Const. Meighan Massey.
An officer finds the man through pings on his cellphone and follows him by foot through a forested area.
Massey says the man was apprehended under section 28 of the act; he was not arrested or charged with a crime.
“The idea of police is not to punish or catch someone doing something wrong, but to ensure the safety of a person who is in a position where they are not necessarily making the appropriate decisions for themselves or the people around them,” she says.
“We are there to mitigate that risk and get them the help that they need.”
POLICE OFFICERS SPEND HOURS WAITING IN HOSPITALS
The loading bay at Victoria's Royal Jubilee Hospital is open with two ambulances sitting idly nearby.
The officer helps the hand-cuffed man out of the cruiser. The two walk through the busy parking lot over to the entrance of the emergency room, with his head bowed.
“We go through the triage process the same as anyone else coming in,” explains Massey. “There is no streamline for someone coming in with a mental health crisis. If you are going in in the middle of the day when the waiting room is packed, you are waiting until all the high-priority-level trauma stuff is dealt with.”
Once inside, the police officer must stay with the individual and wait with them until a doctor says they can leave.
“We go and sit with someone for four hours. You’re not just sitting there in silence. You’re talking with them and hearing about their struggles and what they’re going through,” Massey tells Glacier Media. "Quite often, what we are hearing is that they’ve been trying to get help for so long and they don’t know what to do.”
Police officers across southern Vancouver Island are stuck in waiting rooms for hours, taking them away from other police calls and also putting them in a position to care for the person experiencing the mental health crisis. In 2020, Saanich Police spent 1,190 hours waiting in hospitals (Royal Jubilee Hospital and Victoria General Hospital) with people apprehended under the Mental Health Act, Victoria Police spent 1,375 hours and West Shore RCMP spent 513.
“Frustration is felt at every level of anyone involved in this process right now,” she says.
Victoria Police and Saanich Police echo West Shore RCMP, saying their officers need to be out responding to calls and not waiting.
“Certainly, it’s not the best use of police resources when we have an officer sitting in a hospital waiting for a client to be seen by a physician,” says Const. Markus Anastasiades with Saanich Police. “We understand completely how busy the hospitals are and how much of the onus is being placed on them.”
It’s a significant issue, according to Victoria Police.
“It would not be out of the ordinary for us to deal with several mental health apprehensions in a day or in a night. We have a lot of people that require a lot of supports in our community and the reality is police is the only agency that is able to apprehend someone under the legislation under the Mental Health Act to transport them to the care of a physician,” says spokesperson Const. Cam MacIntyre.
WHY SECURITY OFFICERS NO LONGER MONITOR MENTAL HEALTH PATIENTS
On that sunny Friday afternoon, the West Shore RCMP officer waited inside Royal Jubilee Hospital with the man for more than four and a half hours. At the same time, four other officers arrived with mental health apprehensions, leaving only three officers to respond to other calls.
“Files are still coming in, people are still making reports. What it means is there’s one less person taking files and one less person providing backup on high-priority files and responses,” says Massey.
The man is eventually released and the officer is able to leave the hospital just after 5 p.m.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for Vancouver Island Health Authority says staff are aware and sympathetic to the challenges faced by police.
"We do everything we can to reduce wait times. This includes having an additional registered nurse in PES (Psychiatric Emergency Services)," says the spokesperson. "The issue around special constable status is complex and involves multiple jurisdictions, provincial legislation and liability issues."
According to the West Shore police officer, the man who was apprehended was admitted to the hospital's PES at 2:09 p.m., waited to see the doctor till 4:59, and was released at 5:08 p.m.
“Our goal here is not to remove ourselves from this process; that is not our goal. Our goal here is to help this process become the best it can for the people going through a crisis,” says Massey.
Hospital security guards were stripped of their peace-officer status in 1997 after a patient’s suicide attempt and lawsuit. All three detachments are asking for security officers to be able to transfer the person experiencing a mental health crisis or emergency so the officer does not have to wait at the hospital.
“We are asking the provincial government to step in and look at reinstating special constable status to protective service officers so they can be responsible for taking on clients who we bring to the hospital,” says Anastasiades. “It’s a model that we know has worked well before in the past.”
Victoria Police say there are ongoing conversations to create change.
"I know we have a great relationship with Island Health and we’ll continue to work through it with them hoping to reach a good resolution,” says MacIntyre.
Glacier Media has reached out to the Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, which will be explored in part two of this series. Also, health-care experts weigh in on the level of mental health support available to people in B.C.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and needs support, call the health support line at 310-6789 to be connected to the Crisis Line Association of BC.