Health officials in Vancouver are proposing a new twist on the drunk tank, a jail cell where intoxicated people are taken to sober up.

They’re hoping an expanded “sobering centre” will put people who’ve had more than they can handle in touch with the health care system – a measure that may reduce the injuries or deaths that can happen when confrontations escalate between drunk people and police.

“We’d have a handover from police and an immediate assessment with a nurse,” said Andrew MacFarlane, Vancouver Coastal Health’s director of mental health and addiction services. “Then we’d have ongoing monitoring.

“The fundamental difference is the level of medical care -- the number of nurses we have and our ability to connect to care. That can be their entry point for an on-going connection with the health care system,” he said.

He said the idea is in its very early stages, and he hopes to consult widely about exactly what this new facility would look like. He said the move was largely prompted by the aging detox facility on East 2nd Avenue in Vancouver.

At that site there are 10 beds for intoxicated people, which sees about 2000 people a year, officials said. But the 60-year-old building needs repairs, and that’s an opportunity to re-examine how to improve and expand the service, said MacFarlane.

Authorities can arrest someone for being intoxicated in a public place. Right now, Vancouver Police make sure someone is seen by a nurse on arrival.

But high or drunk people can be unpredictable and can refuse directions – a conflict that can escalate in cells.

For example, in 2004, Thomas McKay was celebrating completion of college exams when he was arrested for what his lawyer called a minor disturbance. He was thrown to the ground on a cement floor in the Victoria police station and got permanent brain damage.

Creating a sobering centre in Vancouver was among the recommendations in the public inquiry following the death of Frank Paul, an aboriginal who was picked up for being drunk in a public place in 1998 but then froze to death after police left him in an alley.

This week, a judge awarded Bobbi O’Shea $9000 in damages after she was picked up while seeking help during an anxiety attack while high on crack cocaine, but then was restrained using a “hobble” in the cell. The judge found the restraint use was justified.

O’Shea told CTV News she wants the sobering centre to be expanded right away.

“If that was here none of this would have happened to me,” she said. “I wouldn’t be so harmed.”

Fraser Health has a facility called Quibble Creek in Surrey, which sees about 600 intakes a month. Seattle has a sobering centre which officials there says saves tax dollars because it keeps drunks from constantly accessing the more expensive emergency services.

“We know from plenty of research from Seattle that these sobering centres are much more effective at helping people, much more effective, and we don’t have the same level of incidents and violence that we get in custody,” said Doug King, O’Shea’s lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society.