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With mental health calls up by 180%, police are in a dilemma

Chief Paul Pedersen tells the Police Services Board when it comes to the rising need for mental health services police are caught in the middle: They have to respond to calls for service, but when it comes to mental health, officers are not equipped to get people the help they need

Police are responding to more calls related to mental health, with 1,290 recorded between Jan. 1 and June 21 — a 180-per-cent increase over the 461 seen during the same period last year.

Although Chief Paul Pedersen said this is at least partly due to certain well-being checks now being classified as mental health calls, he added it’s a complicated issue they’re working on.

It’s also an issue at the heart of an ongoing debate as to whether police should be responding to these calls to begin with, which Pedersen highlighted in a recent report to the police board.

“Do we actually need frontline officers, do we actually need guns, tasers and pepper spray responding to that, or are there some other agencies or other ways of de-escalating that or moving that business elsewhere?” he asked, reiterating a common question posed to police.

The flipside, he said, is when there’s an unknown or potential for violence associated with a call, “every outside agency expects us to attend.”

“The challenge, of course, is we’re seeing an increasingly polarized public that wants us to be all things to all people, and I think we have to ask whether or not we can continue to deliver some of these services.

“We’re the only agency with the lawful authority to apprehend individuals under the Mental Health Act and then take them for help.”

It’s an ongoing debate yet to receive a clearly defined solution, he said, noting the 211 service line could be a viable option for people seeking certain social and health-related services, which might divert some calls from 911. 

The phone line is answered 24/7 and links with more than 60,000 community and government programs and services in 150 languages. 

It’s a service police board chair Al Sizer said isn’t as widely known as it should be, but is something they’re likely to promote in the near future.

The city has also recently been awarded provincial funds for a pilot program, which will see four qualified crisis workers added to the city’s Emergency Communications Centre to deal with calls that would otherwise result in a police response. 

“Lots of times these individuals are just looking to speak to someone, and it’s not necessarily a police response,” Greater Sudbury Police Service Deputy Chief Sara Cunninghman told when the program was announced in April. “We often know that we're not the best people to be responding to these calls for service.”

During a pilot program adopted by the OPP between Nov. 2, 2020 and June 6, 2021, crisis workers engaged in 478 calls, of which 16 per cent were diverted from frontline officer response.

Last year, city police also launched the Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team, which pairs officers with a Health Sciences North crisis worker to respond to mental health and addictions emergencies reported to 911. 

As part of the program, officers committed to completing additional de-escalation and culturally sensitive empathy-based training. 

It’s not just ensuring mental health-related calls are dealt with by the most qualified people under consideration, with police also looking at how to reduce the total number of calls they respond to in order to improve their overall service delivery. 

Mental health concerns have also impacted Greater Sudbury Police Service members, with Pedersen reporting up to 12 per cent of sworn members are not available for deployment to the frontline due to “occupational and operational injuries of the body and mind.”

This represents approximately 32 people, who while still doing meaningful work, Pedersen said are not doing “the operational deployment work that the public expects and that our members expect.”

“We find ourselves in a place where we struggle to meet the demands of the complexities of our business, and struggle to meet our staffing minimums and we operate oftentimes, in fact always, with a call backload, and this strains our people,” Pedersen added.

“We want to reduce the strain on our frontlines so we can help the public out. People need help and our community needs us.”

Sizer raised the question of mental health calls which resulted in Pedersen’s presentation, and told after the meeting that although there remains no clear answer to the conundrum, he’s relieved to see the police department is working on it with other agencies. 

“I don’t think the answer lies in the police service department, it’s a societal issue that will have to be dealt with by different agencies.”

Public Health Sudbury and Districts favours incorporating mental health and peer-support professionals into mental health-related calls, public health nurse Melanie Rail of the Mental Health and Substance Use Team told 

“We’re committed to understanding and shining a light on systemic racism, and often prejudices,” she said, and push a “mental health for all” approach, alongside “keeping a focus on the intersecting way that people experience oppression and trauma.”

A holistic approach is required, she said, noting that greater education regarding mental health and associated issues within the broader community would help prevent certain situations from reaching the emergent stage at which a police presence might be necessary.

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for