Across Canada and the United States — and in fact the world — mental health has become one of the most serious issues facing the police. The reasons why we are seeing an in increase in severe mental illness across the board is not entirely clear; some connect it to drugs and alcohol while others suggest that it has simply become more public.
Reasons aside, the police are often the last line of defense when a person is suffering from a mental health crisis. We are the agency of last resort that is available 24-7. Whether it is drug-induced or a bona fide psychiatric illness, our role as the police is to keep the individual safe until they can be treated.
Throughout North America we have seen some horrific events ending in serious injury or death that involve a mental health crisis, but the reality is the vast majority of people are not a harm to others — they just need help. The Delta Police do not want to criminalize mental illness in our contacts with people in crisis, which is why we have made the fundamental shift towards de-escalation.
De-escalation is a simple concept, but it is not easy. The varying circumstances of each individual event make de-escalation highly complex. Our officers use de-escalation tactics in an effort to slow things down, to allow the opportunity for an intervention involving either medical personnel or officers who are trained specifically in negotiations. The objective is always to bring the situation to a peaceful and safe conclusion for all involved.
The key to de-escalation is time. Situations can require a significant amount of patience on the part of police officers. People end up in crisis for so many reasons, and no two are ever alike. Whatever has brought them to this tipping point in their lives, and whether they have committed a crime, is not necessarily relevant in the moment; keeping them alive and unharmed is.
Crisis de-escalation is not new to the Delta Police, however we are enhancing the training of our officers using the ICAT (Integrating Communications and Tactics) model, which formalizes and standardizes the various options we have when engaging with those suffering from a mental health crisis.
This approach requires police officers to have compassion and empathy, to be articulate, and to understand the complexities of mental health and addiction. At the same time, they must ensure the safety of the public, the individual, themselves and their colleagues – all in an immensely dynamic and quickly changing situation that often unfolds in seconds, and not minutes and hours.
The model of community policing embraced by the Delta Police Department ensures we act as guardians, not warriors, and this philosophy is fundamental to helping people in our community who suffer from mental illness and addiction.
Neil Dubord is the Delta Police Department’s chief constable. He joined the DPD on June 29, 2015 after three years as chief of the Metro Vancouver Transit Police and 25 years with the Edmonton Police Service where he was the Deputy Chief in charge of Community Policing Bureau.