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‘Police have become part of the mental health system:’ B.C. Coroner studies deaths after police encounters

Police across the province need to work closer with mental health officials in assessing vulnerable people with whom they have contact, a new study by the B.C. Coroners Services says.

The Coroners Service put together a panel of experts that reviewed the deaths of 127 people who had contact with police within the previous 24 hour and found two-thirds were struggling with mental health and addiction issues.

Their report – Opportunities for Different Outcomes – recommended improving coordination between health services and police, increasing access to mental health assessment and using findings from police encounters for ongoing professional development.

The deaths in the review occurred over five years from 2013 to the end of 2017 and included 56 suicides, 40 accidental or overdose deaths, seven deemed natural and 21 attributable to police used of force. Three deaths resulted from injuries caused by others.

The study noted that 84 percent of the people on the study were men and 61 percent struggled with illicit drug use.

Indigenous people were overrepresented in the numbers, making up 20 percent of the deaths reviewed despite being just six percent of the B.C. population.

The report noted that police have more than 400,000 encounters with civilians each year for criminal-code or traffic-related offences, “and the vast majority of police interactions are resolved without incident.”

Of those calls, more than 74,000 a year are related to mental health issues.

This review found that of the deaths studied, it was often a metal health or substance abuse issue that led to the original call to police.

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“More than half of the decedents were exhibiting mental health symptoms at the time of police contact,” the study said.

Many of the deaths were of people living in rural parts of the province.

Michael Egilson, of the B.C. Coroners Service, chaired the review panel, which included 19 experts in policing, police oversight, public health, health services, mental health and addictions.

Egilson said the report highlights the role of police in responding to mental health emergencies in the community.

“These are situations where police officers de-escalate crisis situations, and assess, triage and transport persons for emergency care to health services or to cells,” he said.

“We need to drive home the point that the police have become part of the mental health system and that their role needs to be acknowledged, supported and incorporated into the larger provincial mental health and addictions strategy.”

The deaths highlighted in the report were anonymized with no names or locations included.

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