Mental health calls a reality for Greater Victoria’s Emergency Response Team

Gun threat puts Pearkes staff on lockdown

It wasn’t a gun, but the threat of one is something police had to take seriously.

When an agitated young man (believed to be in his 20s) called 911 from the pay phone in the lobby of George Pearkes Community Recreation Centre on Wednesday night, threatened suicide and claimed possession of a gun, it set off a standoff between the man and the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team (heavily armed police).

The scare of a shooter was real, though short lived.

Turns out there was no gun, but there was a person in an extreme mental health crisis.

At the threat of a shooter police urged Pearkes be immediately placed on lock down. Ice times were over, the gym was empty and the only remaining people in the building – five staff and one patron – hid themselves away for a little more than an hour as Saanich Police negotiated with the man.

“It started around 9 p.m. in the library (which closes at 9 p.m.) and transitioned into the lobby of Pearkes,” said Saanich Police Sgt. Jason Bland.

The suspect was eventually apprehended at about 10:30 p.m. Following his apprehension he was sent to the hospital for further assessment, said Sgt. Paul Smith.

Police did not recommend criminal charges.

“At the end of the day it culminates as a mental health file,” said Bland.

Responding to mental health calls are not uncommon for the GVERT. On average GVERT responds to a total of about 40 to 60 calls a year. In 2016 it hit a high of 71, and nine of those calls were deemed as mental health incidents. But GVERT wasn’t created to respond to mental health incidents. Ideally, GVERT is a well-trained tactical team and is generally successful in assisting regional police in high-risk situations, such as recovering firearms on calls, having done so in 23 of its 71 deployments in 2016.

Should the gun threat have been omitted from the call, Saanich Police could have referred for help from the Integrated Mobile Crisis Response Team, which is made up of Island Health nurses, counsellors, child and youth mental health clinicians, and police officers from the Victoria and Saanich Police. IMCRT responds to people in psychiatric or situational crisis across the Capital Regional District.

From December of 2016 to May of 2017, IMCRT answered a staggering 687 phone calls from Saanich, 1,020 from Victoria and hundreds more from around the region.

“It was a great job the police did in dealing with it, we’re very thankful,” said Pearkes manager Graham Thomson. “With any public area there’s a chance of things like this happening, as different folks come in.”

It’s not the first time someone has experienced mental health issues at Pearkes, and it won’t be the last. Staff are trained to assist people in need, but the line is drawn around personal safety, Thomson said.

“We train our staff on being eyes and ears, being able to communicate back to the police and others about what’s going on, what we might see here,” Thomson said. “We do not ask staff to intervene, or put themselves in harm’s way, we aren’t police. We train our staff on different techniques, to be non-confrontational, and around policies and procedures, but our main role is safety ourselves and safety around us.”

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