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Police de facto part of mental health system: death review panel

A death review panel examining the deaths of people who died during or within 24 hours following contact with police in B.C. says police are a de facto part of the mental health system and that the role of policing should be incorporated into the provincial mental health strategy, highlighting that more assessment and training opportunities exist.

In the report “Opportunities for Different Outcomes – Police: A crucial component of B.C.’s mental health system,” three promising areas to reduce deaths and improve public safety were identified:

* Improve co-ordination between health services and police who encounter persons experiencing a mental health crisis;

* Increase access to mental health assessment, and improve referrals to services for persons experiencing other life stressors; and

* Utilize findings from police encounters with the public to inform ongoing police professional development.

This review of 127 deaths between 2013 and 2017 found that:

* Mental health issues, chronic alcohol use or substance use were present in the lives of many decedents. These factors were the primary reason police were called by the public, friends and family members of the persons who died;

* More than half of the decedents exhibited mental health symptoms at the time of police contact;

* Many of these deaths were of persons living in rural or small communities; and

* Indigenous persons in B.C. account for 6% of the population; in this review 20% of deaths were among Indigenous peoples.

The death review panel, chaired by Michael Egilson, included 19 panel experts who are professionals with expertise in policing, policing oversight, public health, health services, mental health and addictions, and Indigenous health. The recommendations from the panel are aimed at preventing death in similar circumstances and improving public safety overall.

“Police in B.C. are responding to about 74,000 incidents annually involving mental health, and 18,000 of those fall under the Mental Health Act,” Egilson said, in a news release. “These are situations where police officers de-escalate crisis situations and assess, triage and transport persons for emergency care to health services or to cells.

“We need to drive home the point that the police have become part of the mental health system and that their role needs to be acknowledged, supported and incorporated into the larger provincial mental health and addictions strategy.”