VicPD budget request sparks debate on role of police in mental health, addiction calls

Conversation divided on policing poverty, homelessness

The Victoria City Police Union (VCPU) said it is “shocked and disappointed” with Victoria City Council’s decision last week to deny the latest budget request.

Following a police board and subsequent council meeting Feb. 14, the Victoria Police Department was asked to cut $1.1 million from its proposed budget and resubmit to council – a request chief Del Manak said “sent a clear message to the police department that public safety is not a priority.”

RELATED: Nine jobs at the Victoria Police Department at risk after budget decision

In a Facebook post, VCPU said its members are concerned the department will have to cut frontline positions from units like the assertive community treatment (ACT) or housing action response (HART) teams.

“When it comes to crime, our officers deal with more violent crime and have a higher criminal case load than any other municipal department in B.C., but just looking at crime rates is misleading,” said Sean Plater, VCPU president. “Crime rates are not an accurate reflection of all the issues officers are facing in Victoria every day.”

“The police respond to many types of calls that are not classified as crimes, such as suicidal people, drug overdoses, missing persons, unwanted persons, sudden deaths, disturbances and many others because we are required to or the public expects us to.”

The statement goes on to say that Victoria Police responded to 5,886 calls for service to six downtown shelters during the first eight months of 2018 – roughly 24 calls a day to just those locations.

But some critics are adamant that police are not the answer to mental health and addiction crises in the city. The issue has ignited a number of Twitter conversations about police spending and the role of law enforcement.

Don McTavish, director of housing and shelters for the Victoria Cool Aid Society, said he’s seen the role of police change significantly during his more than two decades with the downtown Victoria shelter and homelessness-reduction organization.

“Overall poverty and homelessness has increased, as has the visibility of people who are out there,” McTavish said. “The police over the years, I think, have changed their approach. I like to joke that they’ve gotten in touch with their inner social workers.”

“They are certainly not just on the enforcement end, I mean they are truly, fully engaged partners in trying to alleviate homelessness and poverty.”

McTavish said he notices some complexities created with the evolving role of police.

“I think as a community, we put the police in some very complicated situations where we want them to have a social worker response and yet we’re also calling them to enforce the law or ask someone to move on.”

Over his years of working with Victoria’s vulnerable communities, McTavish has come to value a multi-team approach.

“I think it’s important to have a mix because in a number of situations, depending on how it goes – you’re going to need the mental health worker, the social worker or the police officer to assist,” he said. “If the mental health worker or team can talk that person down, that’s something.

“But if there is a safety issue then the person needs to go.”

RELATED: Victoria police defend call for more officers, role in overdose prevention

Final decisions on the Victoria Police Department’s budget are expected to come in April.

With files from Nicole Crescenzi.



nina.grossman@blackpress.ca

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