When a Niagara resident is in crisis, there are three help lines available to them: police, fire, and emergency medical services (EMS).
The Niagara Region Anti-Racism Association wants to change that — calling for the creation of a fourth civilian-led service that would specialize in mental health and welfare checks that do not necessarily require an emergency response.
“This is one way they could save a lot of money: by moving calls that don’t need to be answered by the police to a service that is cheaper,” says committee member Saleh Waziruddin. “There are already civilian professionals that are trained to deal with these calls, so why not just give them the resources and that way there is less on the police?"
The association envisions the service as another resource that a 9-1-1 dispatcher could transfer a call to.
“It would be the same line,” Waziruddin says. “If the civilian worker dispatch needs police, they can call police themselves. It doesn’t need to be that the first response is police.”
To implement the service, the anti-racism association wants to see money diverted from the budget of the Niagara Regional Police Service (NRPS).
Waziruddin points to Edmonton, where a similar service was implemented two years ago.
“This has already been done by other places in Canada,” he says. “There’s an example to follow. We wouldn’t be the first ones to shift money to these civilian services that are specialized in handling these kind of calls.”
According to a 2020 NRPS report, non-urgent mental health and welfare checks made up 8.3 per cent of calls in 2019. Police are often the first to respond to these calls, which can sometimes lead to tragic results.
On Sept. 4, a police officer killed a Black man in Port Colborne after the man threatened a neighbour with a knife and barricaded himself inside his apartment.
“The operation may not have been perfect, but no such undertaking ever is,” reads a report on the incident from the Special Investigations Unit. “It may be, for example, that more ought to have been done in the course of the negotiations to address the mental health issues that appeared to be at play once it was learned that the Complainant had cognitive deficits.”
Waziruddin says that incident illustrates the need for a dedicated mental health service.
“They say the person had cognitive difficulties so you obviously can’t talk to them in a way that you would with someone who didn’t have that problem,” he says. “You need specialized people who know how to talk to them in a crisis. When we have services that are actually specialized and don’t respond with a gun, then we’ll have less people unnecessarily killed.”
To convince others of their idea, the anti-racism association sent a letter to Niagara Region councillors ahead of last Thursday’s meeting about the NRPS budget.
Of all the councillors present at the meeting, Laura Ip was the only one to mention the letter.
While Chief of Police Bryan MacCulloch agreed there is a need for a specialized service, he said there are logistical challenges involved that need to be overcome first.
“The challenge that any police service or municipality faces is the intersectionality between mental health, criminality and drug addictions, which creates really volatile behaviours that we’re seeing,” he told councillors.
According to MacCulloch, there is often a lack of information provided in 9-1-1 calls.
“The issue is that the information sometimes is not as it appears,” he said. “The information that we may receive may not indicate that there is somebody suffering from a mental health crisis.”
So what about shifting mental health calls to the EMS?
“EMS is already seeing its own challenges with the offload waits at the hospital,” MacCulloch said. “I’m not sure they are necessarily in a position to provide that assistance given their own challenges with paramedics being delayed for significant hours at the hospital offloading patients.”
Waziruddin says MacCulloch's remarks show the need for the association’s idea.
“That medical backlog would be fixed because we’re not just going to shift the calls but we’re also going to shift the money with the calls,” he says. “I was disappointed that councillors didn’t dig deeper into what the police chief said because he answered his own objections.”
In a written statement, Chief MacCulloch reiterated his support for the idea of a "fourth option."
“The Niagara Regional Police Service has long advocated for the creation of an enhanced model that has a fourth option to respond specifically to persons in crisis, but until that model is created and implemented, police are the only current option,” he writes. “Without a fourth option in place, it would be irresponsible to reduce the budget until a mechanism to safely respond to these calls for service has been addressed.”
When reached for comment, Thorold Regional Councillor Tim Whalen responded that he didn’t read the letter from the anti-racism association because his email wasn’t working.
He also said he does not believe in diverting funds from the NRPS budget.
“To defund the police and that, I don’t agree with it,” he said. “We need to have a specialized committee set up. It can’t just happen overnight. It has to be developed and processed properly.”
Other Regional councillors seem to agree. At the end of Thursday's meeting, councillors approved in principle the police service's $177.9-million budget.
Waziruddin is disappointed that his association’s letter seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
“We’re not being believed when BIPOC people are telling council that we need changes in the police service — we’re not being listened to,” he says. “When someone is going through a crisis you should talk them down instead of hurting them.”