On Tuesday, September 19, DiscoverAirdrie participated in a ride-along with two Airdrie RCMP Constables.
A medium coffee with cream and sugar. That is how Airdrie RCMP Cst. Manmeet Cheema begins his shift this Tuesday evening before he heads to a call.
He's asked the question of why he became a police officer. He says that the thrill of putting the puzzle pieces together when trying to solve a crime is both exhilarating and challenging - and it leads to arresting people and making the community safer. And while the police officer's answers are just as standard as the question asked, there is something to be said for Cst. Cheema's approach to work. He underlines that he follows through on the cases that he comes across, and that was certainly the case last November.
Over a year ago it was Cst. Cheema who had followed up with a resident whose father, who had dementia wandered out of the house and was brought home by local RCMP. Airdronian Carrie Greer recounted the story to DiscoverAirdrie, saying that the phone call surprised her.
"We thank you so, so much from the bottom of our hearts for bringing our dad back home. It makes us feel so protected, and so warm inside just to know that they're out there," she previously said. "They had him home within the hour, which was remarkable, remarkable work."
When asked if apathy creeps into his work, in a mild-mannered, quiet voice, he says that he is not discouraged, even if some members of the public deem the criminal justice system as an ever-revolving door. In his view, meticulous investigation and gathering evidence is what builds a prosecutable case.
As for the call that Cst. Cheema responded to, it ends with the mountie exiting the residence with evidence that will need to be logged. The process may take hours, so he offers that another RCMP constable may be open to the ride-along request.
From Ponoka to Airdrie
Cst. Quinn Danells has just transferred from Ponoka recently, a town approximately eight times smaller than Airdrie. On this Tuesday evening, in between a traffic stop the Cst. responds to as well as several other calls, the conversation turns to mental health and policing.
Although Cst. Danells has been an RCMP officer for a few years, he is nevertheless, very well versed in mental health calls - something that both the public and police have observed an increase in, since COVID-19.
He estimates that close to 50 per cent of the call volume in Ponoka had a mental health aspect, explaining that since the Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury is in Ponoka, increased mental health calls to police are routine.
Cst. Danells explains that in Ponoka, RCMP had at their disposal the Police and Crisis Team, better known as PACT. PACT teams are a partnership between Alberta Health Services (AHS) and municipal city police as well as the RCMP.
"PACT offers mental health assessment, support, and/or consultation in crises from AHS and CPS," AHS states on its website.
According to AHS, PACT is meant to divert individuals who are in crisis with mental illness and addiction issues, from the justice system and hospital emergency departments, as well as assess and stabilize individuals in crisis within the community, and to connect individuals with resources and supports.
Other cities and towns that utilize the PACT model include Red Deer, as well as Calgary.
Cst. Danells stressed that he believes all RCMP detachments should have a PACT team at their disposal.
Healthcare and policing coming together
While Airdrie's RCMP do not work within the PACT model, they nonetheless have a partnership with AHS. Darcy Jessen, Area Manager for Addiction and Mental Health for AHS, explained that the Airdrie model, the Mental Health Addictions and Liaison Team (MHALT) provides a collaborative, proactive and community-based approach to effectively respond to individuals and families who are experiencing addiction and or mental health concerns.
"The team is comprised of a mental health clinician and two RCMP officers. The approach of the team is to collaborate and provide appropriate interventions often resulting in connecting individuals with community resources," Jessen said.
Cpl. James McConnell of the Airdrie RCMP's Community Policing Unit added that there are certain overlaps when looking at the PACT model and the MHALT model. Both models strive to both stabilize and support individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis in the community and both models aim to provide both a response and follow-up component.
"A PACT model focuses primarily on the response when somebody may be in crisis; while the MHALT model focuses more on the post-crisis response, ensuring individuals are receiving support afterwards, and to mitigate a future crisis."
Cpl. McConnell also underlined that a PACT model does not service anyone under the age of 18, which may be a challenge in a community like Airdrie, where the population of those who are aged 0-19 are nearly 30 per cent of Airdrie's total population.
How does MHALT work?
Jessen said that there are various goals the MHALT teams try to achieve, the first of which is to stabilize individuals in the community, while the other is to be able to connect an individual in a mental health crisis to support.
"They provide consultation and coordination with community agencies and other AH [Alberta Health] Services. They provide short-term follow-up and a warm handover to ensure the individual is connected to appropriate services to support stability, recovery, and proactive interventions with individuals who live with a persistent addiction or mental health illness to reduce reliance on emergency services."
Jessen also stressed that one of the most crucial elements of MHALT is stigma reduction and education, which continues to be at the forefront when addressing mental health issues in the community.
PACT in Calgary: 'We are working together to help community members who are in crisis'
The Airdrie RCMP's counterparts to the South, the Calgary Police Service have been operating PACT teams for several years. Staff Sgt. Peter Duchnij of the Calgary Police Service's Restorative Justice Unit said that what PACT offers is the ability to discern what kind of response is needed to call for service. He added that PACT is used as a secondary response.
"Mental health calls could be masked through domestics, or a shoplifting complaint, per se. It's when the officers attend, and they read that person [that] they're making an assessment [of] what type of crisis is this?" he said. "Is there more of a mental health type of issue? If so, who can best support that? This is where we can work with Alberta Health Services, in helping us guide that person through either the social service system or the healthcare system."
Sgt. Duchnij underlined that once a PACT team is deployed, AHS clinicians, in tandem with police can then make a health-based assessment with public safety in mind. When asked if the PACT teams are an example of how policing has evolved, and whether that transformation is positive, he added that different services shouldn't be siloed - but instead, there should be even more focus on these types of collaborations.
Mental health by the numbers
In the first quarter of 2023 (April to June), statistics provided by Airdrie RCMP, show an 18 per cent rise from 2022 concerning mental health occurrences, and when compared to the same period in 2019, there is a 55 per cent increase.
However, Jessen also shared annual statistics that reflect the combined Mental Health Act Occurrences and Form 10s from 2018 to 2022. The statistics show that while there was an increase in mental health occurrences year-to-year from 2018 to 2021, 2022 saw a decrease. Jessen predicted that while 2023 numbers are not yet available they will follow a similar trend as previous years.
During a September 28 Municipal Policing Advisory Board meeting, Inspector Lauren Weare, the Airdrie RCMP Detachment Commander underlined that while the rise in mental health-related calls to police is not surprising, the drop in individuals who were arrested under the Form 10 (Mental Health Act) does speak to the success of the MHALT team.
"As it works now, [MHALT] has been able to support those that are referred. We also have a provincially implemented HealthIM 24/7 support to municipalities and provincial areas where we have access to a clinician 24 hours a day. That allows us as the police, to consult those clinicians outside of the hours where our mental health teams might not be working," she said.
Will Airdrie see a PACT model in the near future?
When asked if there are plans to shift to a PACT model in Airdrie or to perhaps have a hybrid of both models, Jessen said that a review is currently taking place, with both the participation of AHS and Airdrie RCMP. The review, she added, will enable both parties to map out which service model will work best for Airdrie.
However, during September's Municipal Policing Advisory Board meeting, Insp. Weare underscored that she hopes that the Airdrie RCMP will move towards a PACT model.
"...So that we can provide frontline response and outreach with a clinician and an officer. That is where I am hoping that we can get to. [I'm] hoping that we can move [and] modernize how our mental health unit delivers that program."
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