Police officers at risk of violence when dealing with the mentally ill, homeless: Vancouver officer

VANCOUVER — Police have become de facto social workers for people who lack support services as they struggle with homelessness, mental illness and substance use, a Vancouver Police Department spokesman said. Sergeant

VANCOUVER — Police have become de facto social workers for people who lack support services as they struggle with homelessness, mental illness and substance use, a Vancouver Police Department spokesman said.

Sergeant Steve Addison said the stabbing death of RCMP Const. Shaelyn Yang in Burnaby, BC, stressed this week that officers are increasingly finding themselves in potentially dangerous situations.

Yang, 31, was working on a mental health and outreach team when she was stabbed in a park where she had gone with a city worker to let a man in a tent know he couldn’t stay there, the Integrated That has the homicide investigation team said.

Yang shot the suspect before she died, the agency said of Jongwon Ham, 37, who underwent surgery and is due to appear in court on Nov. 2 on charges of first-degree murder.

Earlier this month, an officer who worked with outreach and mental health teams, and an experienced agent who was a trained crisis negotiator, were both killed in a shooting in Innisfil, Ont.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week told the House of Commons that support for mental health needs to be stepped up so that in many situations the police are not the only providers of such assistance.

During a visit to Surrey on Thursday, Trudeau expressed his condolences to Yang’s family, calling her death “devastating”.

“I really know people’s hearts are breaking right now,” he said. “We recognize her service and all that our frontline police officers are doing to support the community in so many ways, as Shaelyn did around mental health and homelessness.”

Addison said “standard policing” is increasingly a reality for people who don’t have a place to live, nor the help they need for mental health issues that keep them living in camps that often move from one location to another. be moved.

“We see people living with this constellation of very complex social problems that not only make them unsafe, but also make other people unsafe,” he said, adding that multiple weapons have been seized from encampments.

“We found guns. We found a loaded sawed-off shotgun. We found replicas,” he said, adding to more than 70 percent of recent so-called alien attacks in the city involving someone with mental illness.

Last week, a person threatened to pour gasoline over people’s tents and set them on fire, Addison said, adding that days earlier, someone had committed a stabbing that left three people injured and requiring hospital treatment.

A man with a machete who allegedly attacked people during a recent weekend in Vancouver also endangered the lives of the officers, he said. The police fired at that person.

As part of a mental health outreach program known as Car 87, the Vancouver Police Department works with a plainclothes officer with a registered nurse or registered psychiatric nurse who reviews or provides community-based referrals to people with mental illness. The program started in 1978.

Police are also working with a Vancouver Coastal Health outreach team to assist people with more complex mental health needs that may involve a history of violence, Addison said.

The department has released reports of mental health disorders dating back to at least 2008. Former police chief Jim Chu said when he retired in 2015 that more work needed to be done to reduce the impact of mental health on both vulnerable residents and the community. to tackle the police. respond to calls.

Vancouver Mayor-elect Ken Sim won the city’s top job last week on a promise to hire 100 more police officers and match them with nurses, telling his first press conference that that would be his No. 1 priority.

“As the mental health crisis has worsened, the demands on the police to respond to these incidents have increased,” Addison said. “I always say we’re first responders, but we’re also the last resort for people in crisis and people who have slipped through the cracks.”

Corey Froese, provincial safety director for BC’s Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers, said any first responder entering a potentially volatile situation is at risk.

Froese said the union has been forced to conduct a risk assessment of several encampments and other locations to determine the best entry and exit strategies for areas that could be enclosed or obscured by trees, for example.

“In the past, everyone just did their own thing. We never really had a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said, and adding people competing to sell drugs at camps adds an extra layer of danger to both the public and first responders.

In 2019, paramedics attending a camp near Oppenheimer Park saw police officers ducking for cover when shots were fired, Froese said.

“We’ve come across propane tanks that weren’t properly secured. We’re very careful going into tents because you don’t know what they’ve stored there and what kind of gases or things they use to heat their tents,” he said.

Someone going through an episode of psychosis may see a uniformed person as a threat and lash out at them, Froese said, adding that it’s not uncommon for paramedics to be pushed and spat at.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 21, 2022.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

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