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'Forming policy based on a catchy slogan': Questions about ABC Vancouver public safety plan persist

Vancouver City Hall is seen on April 20, 2022. (CTV) Vancouver City Hall is seen on April 20, 2022. (CTV)
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A city councillor and the executive director of the BC Crisis Centre are among those raising questions about a motion that would allocate $6 million in funding to the hiring of more police officers and mental health nurses in Vancouver.

Coun. Lisa Dominato tabled the motion "Enabling the Requisitioning and Hiring of 100 New Police Officers and 100 Mental Health Nurses" Tuesday. Its title refers to a key campaign promise made by Ken Sim and the ABC Vancouver party, who were elected with a majority last month. During the campaign, the annual cost of this was estimated at $20 million. 

While Sim said he would make this happen on "day one," his chief of staff Kareem Allam says the decision on Nov. 22 represents "the first, earliest humanly possible moment that we could have voted on it." He has no doubt it will pass.

The motion would allocate "an initial block of funding" of $4.5 million for the Vancouver Police Department and $1.5 million for Vancouver Coastal Health starting on Jan. 1, 2023.

"The nature, scope, and magnitude of the mental health and addiction crisis facing Vancouver requires a significant and substantial increase in supports and actions to improve the quality of life for those living with mental illness, substance use, and addiction in our city," it reads, saying this money would "support various mental health initiatives and partnerships between the two agencies."

QUESTIONS ABOUT FUNDING 

The VPD advertises its starting salary as $77,983. An online job posing for a mental health nurse with VCH says the starting hourly wage is $36.23, which works out to $65,938 per year. Without factoring in things like benefits or overtime, the $6 million would pay for approximately 57 officers and 22 nurses.

OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle does not understand how total amount of funding, as well as the way it is divided, would be enough to make good on the mayor's pledge.

"The motion is not very well thought through as-is. I would have expected, considering this was such a key platform plank for ABC, that they would have a more detailed plan. But instead we have this motion before us where the budget numbers proposed don't match the numbers of police and nurses that they are suggesting," she told CTV News.

"Then there's a surprising disparity between the amount of proposed to go into policing and the amount of proposed to hire nurses without any explanation of it … Their campaign slogan was catchy and now we're forming policy based on a catchy slogan rather than forming policy based on evidence of how to achieve the best outcomes for people, particularly people who are struggling."

'GETTING THE BALL ROLLING'

Allam, when asked about the numbers, said that the amount for police will be enough to hire the promised number of officers in. He said because not every officer will be hired on Jan. 1, not every officer will be earning a full year's salary. In addition, he said the party's meetings with the police department give him further confidence that the force will be able to meet the ambitious hiring target.

"We had a really productive meeting with the VPD asking them about their capacity to ramp up. They believe that they can get to 100 by the end of the year," he told CTV News.

The reason, he said, that the amount of funding for VCH is lower is because "the ramp-up time for the nurses is going to take longer." Allam also described the meeting with the health authority as "productive," but said no commitment or guarantee has been received that it can meet the hiring target.

The motion and the funding it would provide, Allam said, is best understood as "getting the ball rolling" with an initial investment and not as a fully formed plan.

"Nothing's going to happen without that first block of funding being approved by an ABC majority council. That's what's going to start everything -- is getting a block of funding going," he said.

"Once we've got that block of funding going, then we can start having a discussion about stuff, but until the funding shows, nothing happens."

That explanation doesn’t satisfy Boyle.

"I would have expected to see a more thorough and costed-out plan as well as more information, quite frankly, about how we're going to implement it. There continue to be, I think, very reasonable questions about where we're going to hire nurses, what these programs look like," she said.

"I have a lot of questions about accountability, how we'll be evaluating their effectiveness and making future decisions based on that so that we can make sure that we're meeting the needs most effectively and making the most effective use of public dollars."

In addition, with nation-wide nursing shortages and no commitment from the health authority, Boyle worries about the possibility that only police – and not mental health professionals – will ultimately be hired.

WHY INVOLVE POLICE?

Boyle, and others, object to more than just the logistics of the plan. They question why a proposal to respond to people experiencing mental health crises involves police at all.

"It is a concern of mine, particularly because we know police are the most expensive type of response to crisis calls and often not the right response," she said.

While Allam acknowledged criticism of the plan, he maintained that it is one that will increase public safety and help people who need it.

"Personally, I feel very excited about all this. Yes, there's resistance. It's change, it's new and when it's new people have uncertainty," he said.

"There's been a tremendous amount of rethinking as a result of our campaign in terms of how public safety is being perceived. 150 years ago, we didn't have police officers, and 150 years later, we're understanding that public safety is very deeply tied to mental health."

Council heard from speakers Wednesday evening, all 26 of whom were opposed. Among them was Stacy Ashton, the executive director of the BC Crisis Centre, which operates several 24/7 phone lines for people in distress or who are experiencing a mental health crisis, including 1-800-SUICIDE.

Outlining her opposition to the plan, Ashton said 98 per cent of the calls they receive – many of which involve people who are suicidal or in psychosis – are resolved without having to call the police or other first responders. Further, she said that in the small minority of cases where police are called, the move is only made because there is no other option and often against the wishes of the person who is in crisis.

"Our callers don't want police to be involved – with or without a psychiatric nurse. A visible police presence puts their housing at risk and isolates folks from their neighbours. We end up in a predicament where we're trying to interrupt a suicide attempt or an active psychosis knowing there's no public safety concern that would require police presence, and knowing that the situation could be resolved safely and co-operatively if we could get a skilled crisis mental health worker on the ground," she said.

"We're forced, however, to send a resource the caller doesn't want and is likely to find traumatizing."

A REVOLVING DOOR?

When police do attend, even when paired with a mental health professional as is the case in the Vancouver Police Department's Car 87/88 program, Ashton said the intervention too often results in the person in crisis being taken to the hospital, where they are neither admitted nor connected to longer-term supports.

What she advocated for instead was a model in which mental health calls would be routed through the crisis line. In cases where over-the-phone support is not enough to de-escalate the situation, she said the ideal scenario is to have an in-person response that does not involve police. In the event that someone needs to meet with mental health professionals, she said the preference would be to establish respite facilities that are a safe alternative to hospitals.

"We have a revolving door problem where we can identify people in crisis but can't help folks resolve that crisis," she said.

"We recommend considering this motion from the perspective of the outcome you want to see. Do you want to revolving door that can just spin faster? Or do you want a system that's going to actually meet the needs of people in crisis while preserving your more expensive police and psychiatric resources?"

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