Responses mixed to new Winnipeg police pilot project for mental health crises

A new police pilot project will ensure that people who call the 911 emergency line in Winnipeg in the midst of a mental health crisis will be seen by a professional support worker, but some community organizations say the police should not be involved at all.

Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smith announced Monday that the Alternative Citizens in Crisis Response Project will pair an armed plainclothes police officer and a mental health doctor. The teams will be dispatched after police in uniform have checked the situation to ensure they are safe.

Four full-time officers from the at-risk and community relations units will be paired up with a group of doctors over a 12-hour period from Monday to Friday.

“We have limited resources to try out this pilot, as much as we’d like to work 24/7, we’ve put together what we can,” Smith said.

check up. Chris Bohach said the pilot will start in December and will last for one year.

“We expect to see an overall decrease in police calls for service as well as an increase in participation in the services provided to them,” he said.

But the Police Accountability Coalition — a group that represents more than 90 community organizations in Winnipeg and advocates for greater action to tackle police violence and systemic racism — believes this initiative should not be police-led.

The unit must be independent of the police

Louise Simbandomwe, co-chair of the Police Accountability Alliance, wants to see a program completely independent of the police.

“We would like to have the option of being able to connect to a crisis response unit with people who are trained and not connected to the police, for the race-prone, Indigenous and vulnerable community members we work with feel safe and confident that if we ask for help, they won’t have more victims.”

“What we would like to see… is a reallocation of resources from a police-based response to a community-based response.”

Louise Simbandomoi is the co-chair of the Police Accountability Alliance. The coalition is calling on community groups to lead this pilot project, not the police. (Provided by Louise Simbandomwe)

The coalition says there are deep-rooted issues regarding systemic racism in police forces across Canada, including Winnipeg.

“A profound systemic change is needed and this has not happened.”

Follow-up after the crisis

In 2020, the Winnipeg Police conducted 18,991 health checks, making it the most common reason to call the police.

That same year, officers made 2,102 trips to a healthcare facility with people in crisis and spent about 3,533 hours, or 147 days, waiting for the person to be handed over to medical staff.

“This can be an additional trauma or trigger for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, and often does not allow for the required connections with other resources, either across the health system or in the community,” said Dr. James Bolton, M.D. Head of Joint Services for Health Crisis Response.

He said the goal is to help people who go through a crisis frequently with more consistent follow-up care including treatment and housing.

Chris Summerville, CEO of the Schizophrenia Association of Canada, thinks this is a step forward.

“Many of us in the mental health community are looking for better ways to help people who are in desperate need of care… This will be a more empathetic response, you will be more person-centred, and you will be aware of trauma,” he said in an interview on Monday.

But Simbandumwe says the pilot is at best an acknowledgment that a skill set is needed to tackle mental health crises.

“What we are saying categorically is that what we need is a unit that is independent of the police and is able to tackle and prevent situations using a different set of tools,” she said.

“The concern is that if the police are in control of the situation, their dominant approach will still prevail, as opposed to a response that caters more to where the community is and where needs are already manifested.”

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