Nurses to ride along with North Shore police, provide expert mental health support

After calls to change policing in B.C. and work towards mental health support, Vancouver Coastal Health and police are launching a new program on the North Shore.

The Car 22 pilot program will pair officers with a mental health care professional who will ride along with them during patrol shifts.

According to police, the program “is aimed at assisting marginalized and vulnerable populations in the community who face mental health challenges.”

In 2020, 26-year-old Chantel Moore was shot by a member of the Edmundston Police Force during a wellness check. Moore was killed shortly after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, a case that triggered international outrage and protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

In B.C., the way police conduct “wellness checks” also came under scrutiny after a student at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus alleged she was assaulted by an RCMP officer while experiencing a mental health crisis. The officer who conducted that “wellness check” was later charged with assault.

A special committee to review and reform the Police Act, has since been convened by Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth. The committee’s purpose was to make recommendations on things like harm reduction, and impacts on mental health.

Ira Roness, VCH’s director of mental health and substance use, says the program is meant to improve care for vulnerable people in need of help.

“To have a mental health care professional formally partnered with police officers on the North Shore for mental health calls will improve care for the most vulnerable in our community.”

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‘Not a silver bullet’: expert

Despite the initiative, Jonny Morris with the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association says although the program is a step in the right direction, it is not a silver bullet.

“When you’re adding mental health expertise alongside police, it’s definitely something we support as an additional tool in the toolbox for responding to mental health emergencies. So if we build out that middle part where you can have mental health and substance use expertise alongside police — like a number of models already enforced in B.C. that does increase the likelihood of accurate assessment, de-escalation, and getting connected to the right care.”

Morris says when policing vulnerable communities experiencing substance abuse and mental health challenges, it is important for people to know that emergency calls will lead to them getting the attention they need and to reduce the distrust many communities have in the police.

“The ultimate goal here is to reduce reliance upon police when it comes to responding to emergencies. We want to be sending more health responses to health emergencies like a mental health crisis. We don’t need police to be responding unless they’re absolutely necessary.”

However, Sgt. Peter DeVries with the North Vancouver RCMP says the mental health experts are not a replacement for policing.

“The police are there to ensure public safety, so we’re going to make sure that everything is safe. We certainly would never put a non police officer person. We would certainly never put a person who is not a police officer into a 911 call or a police call situation where there’s a safety risk.”

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But, Morris wants to see B.C. follow the lead of Saskatchewan, where mental health experts have been brought into police control rooms to decide whether police or mental health experts should attend the emergency. He says nurses and mental health experts have the knowledge to decide whether police are in fact needed at certain emergencies.

“Imagine if you’re experiencing a crisis and you have a health professional approaching you, that’s a different experience than having someone who’s armed approach you first,” he said.

He says de-escalation is key in response efforts, and mental health experts are expertly trained in doing so.

“The program adds the likelihood of de-escalating a situation and preventing a terrible outcome like an injury or fatality.”

Program meant to reduce the need for off-site assistance: police

Davies says the purpose of the program is mostly to prevent removing someone from their situation.  Rather, he says with the nurse on site, services can be provided immediatly.

“We aren’t the experts, so this unit brings one of those experts along in the police car for the shift and if there is a mental health cause they will go with the police officer to make sure everything is safe. We now have an expert who is able to make that direct connection and we’re bringing that person right with us to the front door of the person who needs the care the most.”

DeVries says if the person needing help is a harm to themselves or others, police will decide whether off-site doctor resources are necessary. He says most situations are not “black and white,” and the duties of the nurses and police will depend on each case.

“It’s about what is the best care that we can give this person right now. Do they need to see a doctor? Do they need a medication prescription? Or do they need to be referred to a service in the community that can provide them with some group help? It really depends on the situation.

Yet, Morris disagrees with this notion, saying community policing encourages more people to ask for help and in return, receive the necessary response.

The Car 22 pilot project is funded by VCH through the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and is expected to run until the spring of 2022, with the potential of permanent funding following a successful pilot launch.

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