Today, I’m being asked for my opinion on an upcoming motion by Victoria Council Committee of the Whole meeting asking City staff to review programs used in other municipalities to help better address mental health, addiction and homelessness-related calls.

I enthusiastically welcome these discussions and am looking forward to exploring new ways to approach these challenging issues. I have long supported the need for effective and well-funded social support services in the community.  For decades, the committed and compassionate professionals who serve in these roles have been key partners to the women and men of VicPD as we collaboratively work together to keep people safe and provide care for the people who need it most.

One of the programs I look forward to discussing is the CAHOOTS model.  CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, has been operating for 30 years in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon.  In January 2019, VicPD began researching the CAHOOTS model, including dialogue with the civilian director of the program as well as the Eugene Police Department, and learned about some of the promising aspects of the program.

CAHOOTS is a model of responsibility-sharing between police and crisis workers. In the CAHOOTS model, the two-person teams –  a crisis worker and a medical technician  – are dispatched to calls that come in to the police non-emergency number and/or through the 911 system. These calls, which have a strong behavioural health component, do not initially require law enforcement because they don’t involve a legal issue or a threat of violence or risk to the person or others. The teams respond to the call, assess the situation, assist the individual if possible, and then help get that individual to a higher level of care or necessary service if that’s what’s needed. If they discover a risk of violence, they call in police officers where needed.  Although police response to mental health calls is reduced, there continues to be instances where the Eugene Police Department is required to respond due to a risk of violence.

We have similar models at work in Victoria. Both the Integrated Mobile Crisis Response Team (IMCRT) and the Assertive Community Treatment teams (ACT) are similar to CAHOOTS and other alternative crisis response models, with one key difference. On IMCRT and ACT, police officers are embedded as one member of these multi-disciplinary expert teams. A recent University of Victoria study on the effectiveness of the ACT team, with its three dedicated, plainclothes officers, has shown that it works. We need more of these alternative programs, which is why we reduced service in other areas in the department to ensure the ACT program was able to continue and why I am excited about the discussions that Victoria City Council is having.

Over recent years, police agencies have been required to fill the void created by gaps in social programs, which often places police officers in an untenable position. Often, the police are the only ones left to call in situations where a social worker or mental health professional could have been more appropriate. Having said that, the police can’t just walk away from attending all mental health calls. There will always be a need for police officers to respond to mental health calls in certain situations that involve violence, or a threat of violence. Additionally, in B.C. police officers are the only ones who can apprehend someone and bring them to a physician for a mental health assessment.

I agree that there is a need to provide additional resources to social services and mental health services. However, this must not come at the expense of police funding which is already under-funded.  Serving the provincial capital of BC and the business and entertainment hub of the greater Victoria region, VicPD already struggles to provide the level of community-based policing and 911 call response that our citizens expect.

It is my hope that whatever programs are put into place are evidence-based, research-informed, and have demonstrated outcomes that do not come at the expense of VicPD’s ability to provide policing services.   CAHOOTS is a powerful partnership between police and social service providers. IMCRT and ACT are also powerful integrated partnerships. We look forward to continuing to work alongside our partners in caring for those who need our support the most.