Feb 2/08: Mentally Ill Overwhelming Police and Their Resources: Report ...
30% of Vancouver police calls involve people who have fallen
through cracks of health-care system.
It's shocking and tragic and stomach-churning. It's an indictment of a
mental health system unable to help those who need it most. It also
may be the most powerfully written document ever to come out of the
Vancouver Police Department.
A new groundbreaking report done by the VPD - released to The Sun
Friday - painted a portrait of a police force overwhelmed with the
needs of the mentally ill because the mental health system was failing
It's graphic stuff. More than a dry recounting of systemic failures,
the report incorporates horrific stories of the mentally ill who have
fallen through the cracks - the hardest to house, the violently
schizophrenic, the addicted. The stories of people living in human
filth, or of being driven to suicide, are not for the tender-hearted.
The report, the first of its kind in Canada, found that over 30 per
cent of police service calls city-wide involved the mentally ill, with
that number approaching 50 per cent in some neighbourhoods.
Those figures are definitely on the conservative side, VPD personnel
say, since they represent only those calls that were recorded in the
The report, written and researched by Det. Fiona Wilson-Bates of the
VPD's Special Investigation Section, is entitled (a little wordily)
Lost In Transition: How a Lack of Capacity in the Mental Health System
is Failing Vancouver's Mentally Ill and Draining Police Resources.
Six months in its research and writing, the report quantifies for the
first time exactly how much of the VPD's resources are consumed by
dealings with the mentally ill.
Its genesis came about after a spate of suicides and disturbances
involving the mentally ill early last year. These incidents caught the
attention of the VPD command.
Were these statistical anomalies, they wanted to know, or typical?
What caused them? How much time and resources did police have to
devote to service calls involving the mentally ill?
Wilson-Bates, a bright young officer who had served in the Downtown
Eastside, was given the job of answering them.
She started trying to compile data by analyzing dispatch calls, which
proved impossible. Those calls often gave no hint that a person with
mental illness was involved.
So she randomly selected two officers from each of the city's 44
patrol squads, and instructed them to fill out cards for every service
call they attended, and mark on those cards "when the incident
involved one or more people whose mental health was a contributing
factor in police attendance."
This methodology required some assumptions on the VPD's part, most
especially that police, better than most, can recognize when mental
illness plays a role in a service call.
"It was . . . assumed that the officers who carried out the data
collection had the personal and professional experience necessary to
make accurate determinations of mental health involvement in the calls
"After all," Wilson-Bates said in an interview Friday, "our officers
are trained in this, and run into it daily, and under the provisions
of the Mental Health Act, we are placed in the position of having to
determine if people should be apprehended because their mental illness
may prove a danger to themselves or others.
"And let's be clear, these cases we're talking about are - as I
instructed the officers and as I say in the report - must be 'readily
apparent and would likely be obvious to any lay person.'"
(An alarming figure that gives a graphic sense of the rise in
mental-illness-related calls to the VPD:
In 1999, there were 360 incidents when an individual was arrested
under provisions of the Mental Health Act.
In 2007, there were 1,744.)
The data collection for Wilson-Bates' report took place over a 16-day
period from Sept. 9, 2007 to Sept. 24.
In total, officers recorded 1,154 calls.
City-wide, data showed 31 per cent of the service calls "involved a
person who the attending member believed was suffering from poor
mental health to the extent that a police response was required."
District-wide, there were differences. In District 2, which includes
the Downtown Eastside, 42 per cent of calls involved the mentally ill.
In District 1, the downtown peninsula, it was 30 per cent. In District
3, east Vancouver, it was 20 per cent, while in District 4, the west
side, it was 26 per cent.
But those percentage numbers are even higher when the VPD factored in
only contact calls, those calls in which police actually made contact
with an individual.
City-wide, that average came to a whopping 36 per cent, or over
one-third of all police calls.
"What is clear," the report states, "is that an alarming percentage of
all police calls that patrol officers currently attend in the city of
Vancouver are in response to people in mental health distress. This
fact is supported in current literature where it is widely accepted
that 'the police are, by default, becoming the informal "first
responders" of our mental health systems' (Canadian Mental Health
Association BC division, 2003, p. 5)."
In effect, Wilson-Bates asserts, police have become the keepers of the
asylum, and our jails the new Bedlam.
The cost of this is enormous, Wilson-Bates said, and she calculated
that almost 154,000 police hours would be required to deal with such
cases annually, or the equivalent of 90 front-line officers working
full time. The direct wage cost for those officers would be $9
million, but that does not include ambulance, hospital or court costs,
or costs related to stolen property or lost productivity.
As contributing factors to this dysfunctional state of affairs,
Wilson-Bates cites what is now a litany of causes:
The historical deinstitutionalization of long-term health care; the
subsequent lack of such long-term care in the Lower Mainland; an
overcrowded and overburdened hospital system in which mentally ill
patients are shuttled in and out of emergency care daily; a lack of
supportive housing; a shocking lack of care for dual-diagnosed
patients who are both addicted and mentally ill; a Mental Health Act
that makes it difficult to get the mentally ill off the streets and
into extended care (giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "right to
die"); and an almost complete lack of information sharing on patients'
medical histories between hospitals and health officials.
The result: A revolving door that spews the worst cases back out on
the street - about 2,100 individuals, Vancouver Coastal Health
estimates, with no permanent housing and who "exhibit behaviour
outside the norm."
One of the several cases Wilson-Bates cites: "Bill Taylor" - a
fictional name used to protect his identity.
"Bill lives in the Downtown Eastside. He is a crack cocaine addict and
is diagnosed with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In 1977
Bill was found not guilty by reason of insanity for attempting to kill
someone in Victoria. He spent 10 years in a psychiatric facility as a
result of this incident and was then released onto the streets of New
Westminster where he wreaked havoc until 2003 when he moved to
Between 2003 and 2007, she reports, Bill notched up 145 documented
incidents with police.
Disabled, and with a personality disorder, he often waits outside the
VPD jail and assaults passersby in an effort to get arrested and get
put in a cell. He's banged on cars at street lights, shouted
obscenities, exposed himself and urinates regularly in the lobby of
the building he's housed.
A calendar recording Bill's involvement with the law is thick with
dates of those days he spent shuttling between jail and the psych
"But you know what's interesting?" Wilson-Bates said.
"What's interesting is the time he's spent released out on the street,
not the time he's spent in custody."
The report has gone to the provincial government. VPD deputy chief
Doug Lepard, who edited the report, said the VPD has had meetings with
several provincial ministers who had been shown the report.
"And to be fair to them," he said, "they really expressed a desire to
fix these problems. So we're very hopeful something might be done to
do that soon."
Wilson-Bates made the following recommendations in her report:
* Open a mental health facility that can accommodate moderate to
long-term stays for those with chronic mental illnesses.
* Create an "urgent response" centre where patients can be assessed
and triaged according to their needs.
* Increase services for those dual diagnosed with a mental illness and
substance abuse problem.
* Provide additional supportive housing in Vancouver.
* Streamline the admission process at St. Paul's and Vancouver
hospitals for police officers who have arrested someone under the
mental health act.
* Collect more data on all police calls related to mental health
issues to fuel further research on the topic and track change.