Police get it right but province lags

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Fri Apr 23 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Toronto police responded to 17,000 calls involving people with mental disorders last year.

These individuals can be volatile, defiant and dangerous. But they’re not criminals.

Front-line officers are trained to handle people who are delusional, suicidal or caught in a traumatic flashback with sensitivity. They know they’re not supposed to bark orders, make sudden, aggressive moves or use their weapons unless there’s an imminent threat of death or physical harm.

But they’re not mental health workers. Their job is to make the situation safe, not to provide the kind of help a person in crisis needs.

Officers do their best, taking these individuals to a nearby hospital or referring them to a community health agency. But what people in distress often need most is a safe place to sleep or an essential medication.

This problem is not new. Thirty years ago, Staff Superintendent Mike Federico, who worked as a street cop in Parkdale, knew the police had to find a better way of dealing with mental illness. As a makeshift measure, he and his colleagues in Division 14 developed an informal partnership with community health agencies in the neighbourhood.

Three decades later, a formal partnership was tried downtown. St. Michael’s Hospital agreed to send out psychiatric nurses with police officers on EDP (emotionally disturbed person) calls. It began as a pilot project in 2000, but worked so well it became a fixture. That led to the establishment of a Toronto-wide crisis intervention program in 2005. Federico was put in charge.

By 2008, seven mobile crisis intervention teams — two in the inner city, two in Parkdale and three in Scarborough — were up and running.

Last year, progress slowed. Two teams were added, serving in the Weston-North York area. This year, there haven’t been any. Efforts to expand into East York have stalled.

Chief Bill Blair says he is more than willing to commit officers to new mobile crisis intervention teams. The problem is a lack of nurses. Hospitals can’t provide them unless they get the go-ahead and the financial support (approximately $125,000 per nurse) from the provincial health ministry. Blair has personally requested the funding. He can’t get an answer.

“It’s still a priority for me,” he told the Toronto Star‘s editorial board.

Everyone at police headquarters feels the same way, Federico says. “It’s an efficient, economic and humane way to deal with people in crisis.”

Hospitals like it because it alleviates pressure on their emergency wards. Police like it because it reduces the amount of time they spend (4 hours per call) dealing with psychiatric crises. Even people with psychiatric disorders like it — to the extent they can like any police initiative — because it provides on-the-spot help.

“This is something concrete and practical to manage mental illness,” Federico says. “Surely that’s healthy.”

Part of the problem is bureaucratic. The establishment of 14 regional decision-making bodies (Local Health Integration Networks) in 2007 has made it slower and harder to get simple funding requests through Ontario’s already tortuous health system.

But that doesn’t wholly explain the blockage, Federico admits. “It’s a pure question of dollars.”

It frustrates him that East York General Hospital, which is eager to join the program, can’t get provincial approval. “The minister (Deb Matthews) will soon hear from me.”

Toronto isn’t the only city in Ontario with teams of police officers and mental health professionals. Mississauga and Hamilton now have similar programs.

“This is a success story,” Federico says. “There’s no downside to expanding it across the province.

“I’m curious to know where mental health is on the ministry’s priority list.”

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