The Calgary Police Service in partnership with a local community organization is set to begin a different approach to responding to mental health crisis calls.
The Alex Community Health Centre has been selected to operate a community mobile crisis response project, which will be piloted over the next 12 months in district four, an area that covers several neighbourhoods in east Calgary.
The response model is described as “person-centred,” which will see teams respond to mental health and addictions crisis, as well as domestic situations where there isn’t a safety threat.
“We recognize that uniformed police officers aren’t always the best option for those experiencing a mental health or addictions crisis,” Calgary police chief Mark Neufeld said at a press conference Tuesday. “However, police have become the default response for those in community particularly outside of regular business hours and into the weekends.”
Each mobile crisis team will have two support workers trained in mental health and addiction distress, who will respond to non-emergency 911 calls and the 211 distress centre. The teams will be accompanied by a plainclothes police officer for the first few months of the pilot.
According to Joy Bowen-Eyre, CEO of The Alex, the support workers will be people with professional backgrounds and those with lived experience who will be trained in suicide intervention, crisis mental health and de-escalation, crisis intervention, Naloxone administration, trauma-informed care, and Indigenous awareness, among others.
The teams will connect people with case managers to facilitate a “continued connection” to determine how to address longer-term needs.
“They don’t want to be stigmatized, but they need help when they need help and they need a response when they call for a response,” Bowen-Eyre said. “That’s the critical piece about connecting all these pieces.”
The first phase of the pilot project will see teams operate between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday, with the goal of expanding the service to a 24-hour response, seven days per week.
The pilot project will cost $2.5 million, funded through the Community Safety Investment Framework; money allocated from both the City of Calgary and Calgary Police Service to create an alternative response model.
Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek called the collaboration between the groups “a very big deal,” and said the pilot will transform the response for people dealing with crisis.
“The community mobile crisis response pilot program allows us the opportunity to transform how Calgarians are supported during a period of crisis, how we can reduce call demand and how we can work with experienced community members who are equipped to respond to Calgarians experiencing a crisis,” she said.
It’s a pilot project that Patrick Heffernan hopes sees success in changing current response models.
Heffernan’s son Anthony was shot and killed by police in a northeast Calgary hotel room in March 2015.
An Alberta Serious Incident Response Team investigation found that officers believed Heffernan was in a drug-induced state of agitation and were concerned about a syringe he was holding. It was found the syringe didn’t have a tip.
“Changes have to be made so these types of incidents are not taking place where someone’s life is ended senselessly,” Heffernan told Global News. “That’s what happened in Anthony’s case, I mean it’s just completely senseless that this young man should die at the hands of five police officers.”
Neufeld said Heffernan’s situation “could very well be” an example of when it would be appropriate for a community mobile crisis response team.
The move comes after Calgary 911 dispatchers began connecting mental health and addiction calls to 211, the Calgary Distress Centre.
211 officials said there is more than 200 staff that directed over 280 calls to the Downtown Outreach Addictions Partnership in August; that number grew to 346 calls in September.
The pilot project is expected to start operating in the next few weeks.
According to Neufeld, district four was chosen because of The Alex’s established presence in the area, as well as a high volume of mental health and addiction related calls.
“The goal would be to keep people from getting into crisis to the point the police have to be called because a situation becomes dangerous,” Neufeld said. “As we’ve heard in many fatality inquiries, where situations have been allowed to fester and folks, I suppose, fell between the cracks.”
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