Police add officer to help combat mental health, substance abuse

For the last two years, Victoria police Const. Sue Hamilton has been trying to do the best she can to support the ACT teams.

For the last two years, Victoria police Const. Sue Hamilton has been running off her feet, trying to do the best she can to support the four Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams in the region.

But the number of people on city streets dealing with mental illness and substance abuse continues to rise, prompting Victoria police to recently add a second ACT officer to help with the ballooning workload as part of a six-month pilot project.

“So many of them need supports. There’s just not enough teams out there to be able to provide the level of care for the individuals that really need the support,” said Hamilton. “It’s frustrating in that there are so many wait lists for community treatment or rehabilitation and even just some of the Vancouver Island Health Authority  programs that are offered.”

Comprised of nursing staff, outreach workers, social workers, a probation officer, a police officer, a psychiatrist and a Ministry of Social Development worker, the ACT teams provide support to people living with severe and persistent mental illness who face multiple barriers (such as substance abuse and chronic homelessness) when it comes to independent living.

The four teams, which also include the Victoria Integrated Community Outreach Team (VICOT), work together to improve the individual’s health, commit fewer crimes and reduce the number of contacts with police and visits to the hospital. Each team has about 80 people that have been identified in need of support due to their elevated usage of emergency services.

Hamilton reviews any interactions the individuals have with police and passes the information on to the team. She’s also there to provide safety when dealing with individuals who become violent.

“One client could be doing great one day, but then depending on what’s going on in their life, they could just be highly volatile the next day,” said Hamilton, noting the importance of developing a relationship with the clients and members of the community.

“Generally if their behaviour is such that it looks like they could be going in a criminal direction, then we will intervene, have a chat about what happened if it didn’t result in charges…Just by having that contact with them, it seems to modify some of their behaviours, but there’s some clients who are really struggling with addictions and other things going on that sometimes the warning isn’t enough.”

The clients who are charged with a criminal offence often wind up in the Victoria Integrated Court (VIC) system, which was established in 2010 to address street crime in the city by adopting an integrated approach to mentally disordered and chronic offenders.

At the time, Victoria police estimated that during a 40-month period, 324 homeless people in the city were responsible for 23,033 police encounters at a cost of $9.2 million. Half of the city’s homeless population struggled with substance abuse and about 25 per cent were affected by significant psychiatric problems, often caused or exacerbated by substance abuse.

Hamilton feels like the work she and the teams are doing is having an impact. Out of the 80 clients on each of the four teams, she estimates between five and six of them have been dealt with by the criminal justice system.

“We’re going to try to come up with solutions to solving whatever the issue is by not taking a criminal route. It’s kind of a last resource that we use. But if the behaviours don’t stop and people will potentially be hurt, then we will charge if it’s appropriate,” said Hamilton, noting the extra ACT officer was greatly needed.

“Sometimes they (the teams) wouldn’t call me because they knew I was so busy. If they weren’t calling me, then we’re not providing the best service to them.”

The pilot program started in July when Const. Todd Mason was re assigned from the beat section to join Hamilton as a second ACT officer.

Last fall, police chief Frank Elsner asked council to approve a two-year, $500,000 pilot project to create a mental health team consisting of two officers dedicated to mental health and substance abuse calls. The pilot, however, was not approved.