OHS Canada Magazine

New pilot project sees Winnipeg police and wellness workers respond to crisis calls


By Brittany Hobson

WINNIPEG — Mental-health workers are to join Winnipeg police officers responding to wellness checks as part of a pilot project beginning next month to provide specialized services and resources for individuals in crisis.

The Alternative Response to Citizens in Crisis includes the Winnipeg Police Service, Manitoba’s Shared Health crisis response services and the city.

Four designated officers will team up with clinicians to provide a “trauma-informed” approach to responding to wellness checks, Insp. Chris Puhach said Monday.

“(It’s) a response designed to assist those in crisis to de-escalate and to prevent unnecessary criminalization of their crisis,” Puhach said.

He explained the team will provide mental-health support during a reported crisis as well as followup services, including resources to help find housing and for addictions treatment.

Advertisement

People who are in crisis, or their families, often rely on calling 911 for assistance because it is one of the few immediate options available. In some instances, individuals are taken to emergency rooms to address their needs.

Erika Hunzinger, acting director of Shared Health crisis response services, said providing help in a familiar setting allows clinicians to connect with individuals to address their specific needs and can be less traumatic for them.

“Through consulting with individuals with lived experience — and their families — we learned that providing the option of receiving services at home when appropriate is trauma-informed and recovery-oriented,” Hunzinger said.

The team is to act as a secondary point of contact. When a person makes a call to 911, uniformed officers will be sent to assess the situation and determine if someone from the new crisis unit will need to be involved.

Puhach said front-line police officers will need to ensure a safe environment so a mental-health worker can intervene more quickly.

An officer in plain clothes will then respond to the call with a worker.

“We will have the professional along with us that can make the observations, based on their training, that perhaps officers were unlikely to recognize previously,” said Puhach.

The team is to operate 12 hours a day from Monday to Friday.

Police say wellness calls have increased during the past year and officers can receive more than 15 calls a day requesting help.

The crisis response team will be able to respond to a wide array of situations, including intimate-partner violence, suicidal thoughts, or mental-health or addictions crises.

Grassroots groups across the country have been calling for alternatives to police responding to mental-health calls following high-profile shooting deaths last year.

Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old First Nations woman, was killed by Edmundston police in New Brunswick in June 2020 during a check.

Ejaz Choudry, a 62-year-old Pakistani father experiencing a schizophrenic episode, was shot by Peel Regional Police in Ontario that same month.

Rodney Levi, a 48-year-old man from Metepenagiag First Nation, was killed by RCMP in Sunny Corner, N.B., in the same month after officers responded to a complaint about a man with knives. A coroner’s jury issued a number of recommendations, including one that RCMP officers not be the first to respond during wellness checks, but should be on standby.

Other cities, including Edmonton and Medicine Hat, Alta., have brought in similar programs in which officers are paired with mental-health workers.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said the crisis team is just the start in addressing complex socio-economic, sociological and health challenges some individuals face.

“I believe we’ve laid a solid foundation of understanding the importance of this work,” Bowman said. “We need to continue by developing an even greater degree of shared understanding of this issue’s complexity.”

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.