City of Winnipeg unveils new pilot project to help people in crisis

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The City of Winnipeg announced a new pilot project that is designed to better help those in crisis.

The project, known as the Alternative Response to Citizens in Crisis (ARCC), was revealed on Monday.

Mayor Brian Bowman said 50 per cent of 911 calls are classified as non-urgent.

"Many of these calls don't require a paramedic, firefighter, or a police officer to respond, but those are the only resources we have available to dispatch," said Bowman.

He added they still know that many of these calls are complex and challenging.

"This pilot project introduces a co-response model of dispatch for police responding to mental health 911 calls. It combines the dispatch of a plainclothes police officer with a mental health clinician to better align our response to the needs of those calling 911."

The program will see four officers allocated to attend these calls with a pool of clinicians and two teams will work over a 12 hour period from Monday to Friday.

In 2020, police said there were 18,991 well-being checks, making it the highest number of dispatches for the first time ever.

Police Chief Danny Smyth said responding to people in crisis can be unpredictable.

"There are benefits to partnering a police officer with a health clinician. Police can ensure a safe environment so the clinician can intervene much more quickly," said Smyth.

He added the goal of this project is to give Winnipeggers better access to the services they need without causing backlogs in hospitals.

Insp. Chris Puhach said there are two ways this program will be rolled out.

The first is having a specialized mental health professional ride along with an officer and attend calls where a person is in crisis.

"The second is in a proactive fashion where we will introduce case management support by working with various health and social agencies in the community to support the long-term stabilization of those in chronic crisis," said Puhach.

He said this will help in de-escalating the situation and prevent the unnecessary criminalization of their crisis.

Dr. James Bolton, the medical director of the Crisis Response Services with Shared Health, said people dealing with mental health issues need support in a timely matter to help with recovery, and the process of bringing them to a hospital while being accompanied by police officers can be a traumatic experience.

He said this project will now allow people to receive immediate help without having to leave their home environment.

"We will also be able to connect these individuals, particularly those who are experiencing frequent crisises or who are frequent recipients of 911 initiated well-being checks, with supports and follow-up care that may range from treatment to housing to other services that are best offered in a collaborative system-wide way," said Bolton.

He added this would provide more immediate and long-term care for those who need it and will also reduce the number of times police need to accompany people to a health-care facility.

Police said in 2020, officers made 2,102 trips to facilities with people in crisis and spent 3,533 hours with them while they waited to be helped; this is the equivalent of 147 days.

Erika Hunzinger, the acting director of the Crisis Response Services, said with ARCC in place, it will give people a better opportunity of connecting with the services that fit their needs.

"The partnership with the Winnipeg Police Service will allow us to respond to the needs of our community in a client-centred way while providing some necessary assurance of safety to the trained mental health staff responding," said Hunzinger. "This will allow us to respond to an increased number of calls than what is possible through mobile crisis alone."

This project is part of work that was completed through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative which has community agencies working together to find ways to better support the needs of people calling 911.