The union says it’s unfair to blame the RCMP for the government’s negligence over “scarce and sometimes non-existent” mental health and addiction resources

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The union representing 6,500 B.C. RCMP officers says it is appalled by the “inaccurate and disrespectful” comments by the provincial health officer, who on Monday told a legislative committee that she’s concerned about the RCMP culture when it comes to dealing with people struggling with mental health and addictions.

In a letter sent to Dr. Bonnie Henry on Wednesday, Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, said her remarks about how RCMP officers interact with vulnerable people in crisis were “offensive and incorrect.” Sauvé said it’s unfair to blame the RCMP for the government’s negligence over “scarce and sometimes non-existent” mental health and addiction resources, a problem that leaves police officers to fill in the gaps.

The letter was also sent to Health Minister Adrian Dix, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and RCMP Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Strachan, who commands the B.C. RCMP.

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On Monday, while speaking to the legislative committee studying how to reform the Police Act, Henry said she has noticed a major difference in how RCMP and municipal officers reflect community values. She said municipal police officers are “more closely aligned with the community and the community norms and ideas and issues.” She cited an example of how in the early days of the opioid crisis, the RCMP lagged behind some municipal forces in equipping officers with naloxone kits to reverse the effects of an overdose.

Henry also said better training is necessary for police officers so their interactions with people in crisis “helps bring (them) along rather than traumatize them.”

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry listens during a news conference about the provincial response to the coronavirus in 2020.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry listens during a news conference about the provincial response to the coronavirus in 2020. Photo by Darryl Dyck /PNG

Sauvé said funding for mental health and addiction services has been inadequate and declining for several years, and as a result RCMP officers are increasingly called to fill those gaps. He said RCMP officers provide round-the-clock support for people in mental health crisis “and are too often the only protection for the individual in crisis and those around them.”

“Our members have advocated for additional funding, resources, and mental health specialists to support and complement these calls, but governments deny additional funding. This negligence is unacceptable, as is blaming our members for government’s lack of leadership,” Sauvé wrote.

Given these scarce resources for youth outreach, mental health, addiction and homelessness, B.C. RCMP officers have independently formed strong community partnerships to help those in need, he said.

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The committee looking at reforming the Police Act to address systemic racism has heard submissions from the representative for children and youth, the chief coroner and B.C.’s human rights commissioner, all of whom said police officers are often the first to respond to a mental health crisis that would be better served by a social worker. This is particularly the case in more rural and remote communities which are typically policed by the RCMP.

Green party MLA Adam Olsen, who is a member of the committee, said it’s true that the province has grossly underfunded mental health services. But he said it’s unacceptable that the RCMP union has put its efforts into a war of words with Henry when it should be focusing on public safety.

Olsen pointed to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki’s reluctance to admit that systemic racism exists in the national force and the Mounties’ role in forcibly removing Indigenous children from their homes during the era of residential schools as reasons why some marginalized communities have a difficult relationship with the RCMP.

Sauvé wrote that Henry’s remarks about the RCMP’s rollout of naloxone kits “completely discredited and overlooked the B.C. RCMP’s continued hard work in battling the opioid crisis, saving lives, and assisting those in desperate need.”

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The federation is advocating for more funding for front-line services beyond policing that help alleviate pressures on vulnerable people and, by extension, RCMP officers.

The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions did not respond directly to the criticism laid by the RCMP union but said in a statement that it is working to expand access to emergency and after-hours care, including implementing new Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams in Vancouver, Victoria, Maple Ridge, Kelowna, Nanaimo and the Cowichan Valley. ACT teams are integrated teams of police, parole officers, social workers, nurses and mental health counsellors who provide 24/7 community-based supports for people with severe mental health challenges.

The ministry also touted B.C.’s first mental health and substance use urgent care centre in Surrey and the St. Paul’s Hospital Hub which provides wrap-around services for patients with mental health challenges.

kderosa@postmedia.com

twitter.com/katiederosayyj

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