VPD Moving Forward: Recruiting and Policing Mental Health

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    Chief Adam Palmer points to the future of the VPD as reflected by the diversity amongst the VPD cadets in this annual photo.    Photo: Ray Hudson

    by Ray Hudson

    In this third article, we talk with Chief Adam Palmer and Deputy Chief Steven Rai, about two critical areas for the Vancouver Police Department: building the force through effective recruiting, and operating programs which positively impact the mentally ill.

    AJ: Fifty years ago Vancouver was overwhelmingly Caucasian as was its police force. How is that reflected in the VPD rank and file now?

    AP: Back in the 1990’s it became a priority to ensure that the police force was representative of the community, and that has followed through to today. At 24%, the VPD has the highest percentage of female officers in Canada (380), and it’s increasing all the time. Thirty to thirty-five years ago most of the officers were white male, but with retirements, we can bring on people reflective of the city’s diversity. You can see it in the academy classes where the recruits are Asian and South Asian, they’re people from the middle east, Filipino, and so on. We have counted forty-nine different languages among our members. Currently, I think we have around eighty-five South Asian members, and well over a hundred Chinese officers, and although I can’t tell you the numbers for every group, I know we are a very diverse workforce. Even so we have not compromised any of our recruiting standards. Every recruit has to meet them.

    AJ: How strong is the interest in policing?

    AP: We’re never short of recruits. Many people apply, but by the time you’ve gone through the qualifications, background checks and everything else, there’s a very small number who qualify. Even so, we never have trouble filling an academy class. We also have a lot of interest from officers from other departments across Canada, from officers currently serving in other municipal forces or the RCMP, who have decided for many reasons that they want to come to Vancouver. The numbers show that we have many people who come here but very few are leaving.

    SR: As a person of ethnicity, growing up in the eighties, the force was much less diverse. Never-the-less they were really good police officers and really connected quite well with the community. I noticed the difference of the force becoming much more diverse, especially with my parents and my grandparents, and when I worked southeast Vancouver, you could see a percentage increase in trust and connectivity. Because of that, we don’t get the problems they do in the U.S. Our force is pretty much the same mix as you see walking down the street. We’ve always been able to reach out to our high schools and bring people in through our information sessions. As well, our online recruiting has brought in a ton of applicants in just a few months. The process is continuous and our aboriginal cadet program, our community safety officers, all these programs are bringing in people at quite an early age. We’re getting quite the cream of the crop from diverse backgrounds and we’re able to foster that quite early. Our best recruiters are our own officers who are the role models.

    The Mental Health Challenge:

    AJ: More and more you’re policing the mentally ill. How do you see dealing with increasing issues where police are more and more on the front line?

    AP: I think it was true that there are only a few people who really need to be institutionalized. Most can function in society totally fine as long as they have the supports particularly around medication. They can lead perfectly normal lives, and that’s the way it should be. Unfortunately, with the deinstitutionalizing wave years ago, people were let out on the streets and the proper supports were not there, resulting in more and more police calls involving people who were mentally ill. Now, I’m not trying to vilify the mentally ill, because a lot of the time these people are the victims. When we look at the data of crimes in Vancouver, you are fifteen times more likely to be the victim of a crime, and three times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime, if you’re suffering from a mental illness. While some people commit criminal offenses as well, I will say that the vast majority of people who are mentally ill do not. Nevertheless, we’re coming into contact with more mentally ill people, as suspects, victims, or sometimes as witnesses under a whole host of different circumstances. Police officers shouldn’t be out there as the frontline mental health workers, but we are. However, I will tell you that in Vancouver, we have developed extraordinary relationships with the people at Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH). They are great partners. We meet with them at a board level, an executive level and the practitioner level, which has resulted in us having three great programs in place.

    Car 87, It’s a program we’ve had in place for 31 years, where a police officer is partnered with a psych nurse, and they go out to calls for service where there is a mental health component. We were the first department to implement it, and it’s a great program, but it’s reactive where we’re dealing with an issue that is already in progress.

    Assertive Community Treatment or ACT, which allows us to operate proactively. There are five ACT Teams in Vancouver, which provide full wrap-around services for people who are the most severely mentally ill folks in our society. These teams are composed of psych nurses, doctors, life skills workers, BC Housing, different social services networks, medical networks and law enforcement to provide housing for people, we get them counseling and make sure they stay on track with their medication, and give these people a higher quality of life. There’s a fellow who spent the majority of his time in jail or on the psych ward of St. Paul’s Hospital. He would masturbate in public or cover himself in feces, really unusual behaviour. He’s now stabilized, living in a residence in Vancouver. He’s on his medication, he’s writing a newsletter for the people in the group living with him and he’s reconnected with his family. He’s back on track with a good quality of life now.

    Assertive Outreach Teams (AOT). It’s an amazing preventative program that we’ve started with Coastal Health, designed to capture the middle group. We’ve got four officers with six people from Coastal Health dedicated to it full time, who meet every morning and review the data on the people from both a police and a health perspective, based on who we’re having the most interactions with. They are the people most likely, if they go off track, to be in a bad place, either by being victimized or causing problems from a public safety perspective. We identify a list of twelve to twenty people who we’ll visit each day. Then the team (that works from seven in the morning until eleven o’clock at night) goes visiting. If they’ve missed an appointment we’ll get a commitment to attend the next day and if they do, we may not see them again for some time. But if he or she misses again we’ll go back find out what’s going on and if necessary transport the person to see their worker, have the psyche nurse administer their medication on the spot, or transport them to hospital if we determine they’re at the point of going way off track.

    This program has produced a 50% reduction in calls to police for service and a 62% reduction in Emergency Department visits. So the numbers speak for themselves and we’re assisting hundreds of people this way on a regular basis. Between those three programs we’ve got a really good wrap around service on it. We’re helping citizens, making a big difference in peoples’ lives, and it’s helping out financially by reducing the drain on resources for both the health system and law enforcement.

    For more information on the Vancouver Police, go to vancouver.ca/police