Police have become de facto social workers for people who lack support services while struggling with homelessness, mental illness and substance use, a spokesman for the Vancouver Police Department says.
Sgt. Steve Addison said the stabbing death of RCMP Const. Shaelyn Yang in Burnaby, B.C., this week has highlighted the fact that officers are increasingly ending up in potentially dangerous situations.
Yang, 31, was working on a mental health and outreach team when she was stabbed at a park where she’d gone with a city employee to notify a man in a tent that he wouldn’t be allowed to keep living there, the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team has said.
Yang shot the suspect before she died, the agency said of Jongwon Ham, 37, who has had surgery and is scheduled to make his next court appearance Nov. 2 on a charge of first-degree murder.
Earlier this month, an officer who worked with outreach and mental health teams, and a veteran constable who was a trained crisis negotiator, were both killed in a shooting in Innisfil, Ont.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons this week that mental health supports need to be stepped up so police are not sole providers for such outreach in many situations.
During a visit to Surrey on Thursday, Trudeau expressed his condolences to Yang’s family and called her death “devastating.”
“I really know people’s hearts are breaking right now,” he said. “We’re recognizing her service and all that our front-line police officers do to support the community in so many ways, as Shaelyn was doing around mental health and homelessness.”
Addison said “default policing” is increasingly the reality for people who have neither a place to live, nor the help they need for mental health woes that keep them living in encampments that tend to be moved from one location to another.
“We’re seeing people who are living with this constellation of very complex social issues that are not only making them unsafe, but making other people unsafe,” he said, adding multiple weapons have been seized from encampments.
“We’ve found guns. We’ve found a loaded sawed-off shotgun. We’ve found replicas,” he said, adding upwards of 70 per cent of recent so-called stranger attacks in the city involved someone with a mental illness.
Last week, one person threatened to pour gasoline on people’s tents and light them on fire, Addison said, adding that days earlier, someone went on a stabbing spree, injuring three people who needed treatment in hospital.
A machete-wielding man who allegedly attacked people on a recent weekend in Vancouver also put responding officers’ lives in danger, he said. Police shot that person.
As part of a mental health outreach program known as Car 87, the Vancouver Police Department teams a plainclothes officer with a registered nurse or a registered psychiatric nurse who assesses or provides community-based referrals for people living with a mental illness. The program started in 1978.
Police also partner with an outreach team from Vancouver Coastal Health to attend to people with more complex mental health needs where a history of violence may be involved, Addison said.
The department has issued reports about disorder due to mental health issues going back to at least 2008. Former police chief Jim Chu said when he retired in 2015 that more work needed to be done to address the impact of mental health on both vulnerable residents and police responding to calls.
Vancouver’s mayor-elect Ken Sim won the city’s top job last week with a promise to hire 100 more police officers and pair them with nurses, telling his first news conference that would be his No. 1 priority.
“As the mental health crisis has worsened, the demands on police to respond to these incidents have increased,” Addison said. “I always say we’re first responders but we’re also the last resort for people who are in crisis and people who have slipped through the cracks.”
Corey Froese, provincial safety director for the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C., said any first responder entering a potentially volatile situation is at risk.
Froese said the union has been forced to do a risk assessment of various encampments and other locations to determine the best entrance and exit strategies for areas that could be enclosed or obscured by trees, for example.
“Before, everybody just did their own thing. We never really had a standard approach,” he said, adding people competing to sell drugs at encampments add another layer of danger for both the public and first responders.
In 2019, paramedics attending an encampment at Oppenheimer Park saw police officers ducking for cover when shots were fired, Froese said.
“We’ve come upon propane tanks that weren’t secured properly. We’re very cautious going into tents because you don’t know what they have stored in there and what type of gases or things that they’re using to heat their tents,” he said.
Someone experiencing a psychosis episode could see a uniformed person as a threat and lash out at them, Froese said, adding it’s not uncommon for paramedics to be pushed and spat on.
—Camille Bains, The Canadian Press