Canada: Montreal: The Police force is not a health service – By Yvonne Sam

 – By Yvonne Sam

On November 1, when I heard the news on the radio that a male had been pepper sprayed at close range by the Montreal police ( SPVM), that he was experiencing a mental crisis, and had been taken to the hospital, the only words that evoked an egress from my lips were “ Not again!”

Surprisingly, not for a nanosecond did an inkling of a thought linger on the color aspect, as I intuitively knew the color that most often gets in trouble with law enforcement.

In 2019, in the face of harsh criticism for its handling of past interactions, the SPVM declared that it will train all its patrol officers to use tools that will help them deal with those suffering from mental health issues.         

The patrollers would complete a one-day course within the next three years focusing on how to de-escalate situations involving “vulnerable” individuals. The duration of the training raised some common concerns, and criticism for not being too comprehensive.

It is clearly obvious that while the police may have received training, there has been no outward sign of “gaining.”

In August 2021, amidst calls for reform, the Montreal police, social intervention workers set up a trial response team to respond to calls about people in psychological distress in public spaces downtown.

Beginning September 1, 2021 Équipe mobile de médiation et d’interventionsociale (ÉMMIS), was due to put into place initiatives to de-escalate crises in public spaces and direct vulnerable people to the appropriate resources.

The service would be available seven days a week 9 AM to midnight and run until the end of the year.

The city’s ultimate goal is to make ÉMMIS a 24/7 service across the island. According to newly-re-elected Mayor Valerie LaPlante the pilot project is the first of its kind in Quebec.

However, it is imperative that these mobile crisis teams be staffed with crisis-trained behavioral health clinicians, who are culturally aware of systemic bias and racism, and can respond quickly, assess, deescalate, treat and assist in transporting the individual in crisis to the correct level of care, instead of involving the police.

Asking police to respond to acute mental health crises is grossly inappropriate on a number of counts. Firstly they are not clinicians, and asking them to make a clinical assessment, or intervene with a person who is experiencing emotional distress is totally unreasonable.

In fact, it can be detrimental to both the individual in need of help and potentially to the police themselves. It must always be kept foremost that the police force is not a health service, it is a force.

Now making health-only teams the default response will strikingly reduce the number of times that the police respond, thereby ensuring that people get the physical and mental health care they need quickly.

All over the world people live with mental illness without being shot and killed by police. In large part, the reason for such a state of affairs is because police in many countries are not trained with the “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality.

In most European countries, in terms of addressing social issues policing is seen as a small part of a bigger set of actors. It is not a case of : “there is a problem, send the police;” instead it is a case of: “there’s a problem let’s work together towards a solution.”

As a matter of fact, in many countries it is the standard for mental health experts and nurses to travel along with, or instead of —-police into situations involving mental health emergencies.

Neither the mental health system nor the law enforcement system can manage mental health crises in the community without help from each other.
However, if the collaboration between the two systems is to be successful, both the police and mental health professionals need to remember who they are. It is of equal importance that police officers be aware that their primary role remains that of law enforcement, even though they may have specialized mental health training.

There are no simple solutions to this crisis, the bottom line however is that what we have ready to put into action is feasible.

Aleuta The struggle continues.

Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is the Chair of the Rights and Freedom Committee at the Black Community Resource Centre. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.

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