Increasing demands for police services to respond to people in mental health crisis in Canada are causing significant burdens on already inadequate police resources.
With the obvious worsening of community mental health, accelerated as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic, governments have unwittingly tasked police services with a job they should not be doing.
This has meant that the police are increasingly being called upon to provide interventions in what is essentially mental health care. The police have thus become responsible for addressing challenges that police forces are ill-equipped to deal with. It also means that resources in traditional police work such as investigating organised crime, ensuring public safety, etc. are decreasing.
The Canadian healthcare system has been unable to meet this growing demand for mental health care. The country’s collective response has failed to build sufficient capacity to manage the risks and cope with this demand.
In the case of the police in England and Wales, they report that between 20 and 40% of police work time is being spent dealing with mental health-related calls and incidents.
Moreover, some experts say that, in the case of those who argue that police forces would simply need to better train frontline officers to optimally manage this challenge, the stark reality is that this would be a poor use of police resources. So, what they propose as the correct response to the problem is to provide trained mental health professionals with in-depth knowledge and experience, dedicated to these diseases and in a position to deliver and manage mental health crises from the frontline.
Thus, the police reform being proposed in Canada to address this systemic problem is putting officers in this support role, rather than asking them to lead a wide range of complex challenges around mental health. As a basic principle this reform would endeavour to make Canadian society a safer and healthier society.
Callers for change in this area add that if what is desired is effective policing, making society a safer place to live and work, it would be critical to identify and address the challenges facing modern policing. And to find an effective response to the growing problem of mental health, the important thing would not be to better train the police; while this is an admirable goal and could provide some benefits, we cannot forget the excessive workloads and lack of resources that have been dragging on for some time.
Policy makers should address the problem by investing in training in frontline mental health intervention, increasing the number of professionals and increasing the capacity to act of those who work in the health system.