City of North Van seeks alternative to police wellness checks

The City of North Vancouver council says it may be time for police to take a back seat when it comes to dealing with people in a mental health crisis.

Council adopted a motion Monday night from Coun. Jessica McIlroy to investigate “a non-criminal and wellness-based response program,” with a focus on “avoiding unnecessary escalation and harm, addressing cultural appropriateness and responding to people’s needs with compassion and care.”

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“The tragic global events of the past few months, including the COVID-19 pandemic, and Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the gaps in our mental health system and amplified the need for greater support resources,” she said.

McIlroy cited five recent publicly reported cases in which people in the midst of a mental health crisis were killed by police officers who had been dispatched to do a wellness check on them.

“And in all five cases, the victim was either Black or Indigenous,” she noted. “I myself cannot speak to the details of what occurred between the individuals involved in these cases, but I can say it raises a lot of questions about whether the current system is working effectively and if it is our best approach.”

Thanks to downloading and shortfalls in mental health care, police have taken on the role of responding to people in crisis, but oftentimes they must respond to people who do not trust police thanks to systemic racism, she added.

McIlroy suggested the city look to models in other jurisdictions where social service agencies and crisis intervention workers make first contact with people in need of help and the police and health authorities serve as partners.

Mayor Linda Buchanan said she had been moved to anger and tears by recent reports in the media, but said municipalities have little say in policing operations.

The province has already announced that it will be reviewing the Police Act, which Buchanan said the city should be a part of.

“We want to make sure that the voices and the stories that we’re hearing in our community are represented at that table, and can be implemented into any changes that they’re making at the provincial level,” she said.

McIlroy’s motion passed unanimously, including an amendment from Buchanan directing her to write to the premier and solicitor general to assert the city’s position in the review of the Police Act.

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