Police board backs chief’s plan for civilian-led response to social cases

Victoria Police Chief Del Manak’s desire to look into civilian-led response for some mental-health cases, rather than involving law enforcement, has received strong backing.

The concept was well-received by the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board this week, and a motion was passed unanimously to endorse the work Manak is doing with Island Health on the issue, said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, board co-chair.

“The board is definitely supportive and it aligns with the work that’s happening at the City of Victoria on an alternative response to these kinds of calls,” Helps said, adding that she appreciates Manak’s leadership in addressing the issue.

The Island Health board of directors will discuss the issue next week.

Something has to happen, Manak said.

“My view is that there is a significant gap in service and there needs to be an investment in money, resources, in social services and in the mental-health field in response to what we are seeing on our streets,” he said. “However it does not have to come at the expense of the police.

“We need both. We do need the police. We do need the role that we provide in society, but we need to enhance our services in other areas.”

Manak said the focus of what is proposed should be on adding value to the system rather than cutting the police department’s budget, and shouldn’t be looked at as a way to defund the police.

He said that Island Health is “the perfect partner” in the effort underway because of its responsibility in the field of mental health, and police have had a major role, as well.

“The police have been responding to mental-health calls so we are the subject-matter experts in this area of police response.”

He said he wants work with Island Health to explore the diversion of “low-risk” mental-health calls from police to a professional, civilian-led team.

Police would still be required to respond to mental-health calls that have a potential for violence, Manak said.

Helps said she also sees a need in the community for steps to be taken.

“I think it’s past time,” she said. “This has been on the city’s radar for some time.

“Homelessness and mental health and addiction, we all know that they’re not crimes.”

Helps said she hopes something can get started based on information that’s already available, like that coming from the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) initiative in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon and the Calgary-based Downtown Outreach Addictions Program.

CAHOOTS is based on a shared responsibility between crisis workers and police, while Calgary’s program helps connect those who encounter people with substance-abuse issues with the appropriate social agency.

Manak said that there has already been public discussion on the issue and it is part of the VicPD Transformation Report.

He said that an inventory should be conducted of services already available here, like the Assertive Community Treatment and Integrated Mobile Crisis Response teams. The latter includes nurses, social workers, child-and-youth counsellors and police officers who respond daily from 1 p.m. to midnight.

Current models serving Victoria and Esquimalt have police officers embedded in them.

Looking at other approaches across North America is important to the process, Manak said.

Helps said she expects to see some funding for the effort coming from Island Health and/or the province “because this a health issue, not a criminal issue.”

She said she anticipates that the city will also provide some money.


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