Chilliwack partnership promises better police response to mentally ill

The mentally ill in crisis situations should find an improved response from Chilliwack police after a formal partnership with the Fraser Health Authority was formed June 20.

The mentally ill in crisis situations should find an improved response from Chilliwack police after a formal partnership with the Fraser Health Authority was formed June 20.

RCMP officers in Chilliwack will now get training in how to deal with the mentally ill, and will have the expertise of a mental health nurse to advise them when they respond to mentally ill people in crisis situations.

A list of “common clients” known to police and to local mental health officials will also be created so police officers have a better idea who they are dealing with and how best to respond.

The mental health nurse won’t be available 24/7, but there will be a crisis line police can call for emergency consultations.

“It’s not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction,” Stan Kuperis, manager of mental health programs in Chilliwack, said about the partnership.

He said police and mental health professionals in Chilliwack already have a good relationship, but this program will enhance the ability of police officers to deal with someone who is “acting suicidal or obviously has a mental illness.”

He said there are similar programs with police in Abbotsford, Delta and New Westminster.

Chilliwack RCMP and mental health officials have been talking in the past year about a formal partnership “where we could provide a mental health nurse to provide some intervention” in crisis situations, Kuperis said.

“It’s something we were wanting to initiate in Chilliwack,” he said, but the needed resources only recently came available to the Fraser Health Authority.

RCMP Insp. Grant Wilson, operations officer in Chilliwack, said in a news release that the partnership creates “an improved service delivery model for assisting people in mental health crises.”

“By utilizing a coordinated response with mental health professionals, the public will be better served,” he said.

Attorney-General Barry Penner, Chilliwack-Hope MLA, said the program should result in fewer mental health clients winding up in police custody or in hospital emergency rooms.

“A protocol like this could have been helpful,” he agreed, in the case of a 46-year-old Chilliwack man who died in police custody back in 1999.

Phil Ferguson had called 911 telling the dispatcher he was hearing voices and thinking about suicide, and that he was “scared” because two mental patients in the Vancouver-area had recently been shot by police.

However, Ferguson said he would “appreciate it” if the RCMP sent officers to help him, and he was eventually taken to the police lockup. But once there he got into a scuffle with an officer and suffered a cut on his head. He was taken to hospital where he died 18 hours later.

Ferguson was reportedly trying to arrange a meeting with the local RCMP about police treatment of the mentally ill the week he died.

Chilliwack RCMP officers were found blameless by a coroner’s inquiry, but there was a call at that time to train police officers on how to deal with the mentally ill.

Kuperis said there have been “significant improvements” in the treatment of the mentally ill in Chilliwack, including expansion of the 14-bed psychiatric unit at Chilliwack General Hospital to accommodate 16 patients, and the opening of a long-term, 20-bed rehabilitation unit in August.

Although the unit will initially be used to treat patients from Riverview, once they “flow through” the unit can be used for Chilliwack-area patients, he said.