(Image / Oak Bay Police Twitter)

While police officers are often characterized strictly as law enforcement agents, a panel of health and police experts say that the duties of officers in BC have transitioned them into a key part of the province’s mental health system and that further training on the subject could improve public safety.

19 panel experts with experience in public health, health services, policing, policing oversight, mental health and addictions, and Indigenous health contributed to a report that highlighted the benefits of increased access and training for officers on mental health services.

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The report, titled “Opportunities for Different Outcomes – Police: A crucial component of B.C.’s mental health system,” reviewed the cases of 127 people who died within 24 hours of contact with police between 2013 – 2017.

The panel found that with greater training and coordination, officers could become a powerful tool in the provinces mental health strategy and offered three key recommendations from their findings:

  • Communication and coordination between police and health services should be improved when officers are engaged in a mental health crisis.
  • Mental health assessments should be expanded and officers should have an improved range of referrals to services for people experiencing “life stressors”.
  • Ongoing training programs should be developed using officers’ experiences with the public.

In total, the panel found that in the 127 deaths reviewed, 61% struggled with drug use and over two-thirds involved a mental health issue.

Additionally, during these 127 encounters over half of the people involved were displaying mental health symptoms at the time.

“Police in B.C. are responding to about 74,000 incidents annually involving mental health, and 18,000 of those fall under the Mental Health Act,” said Michael Egilson, report Chair and Chair of the Child Death Review Unit for Office of the Chief Coroner in a statement.

“These are situations where police officers de-escalate crisis situations and assess, triage and transport persons for emergency care to health services or to cells.”

“We need to drive home the point that the police have become part of the mental health system and that their role needs to be acknowledged, supported and incorporated into the larger provincial mental health and addictions strategy.”