The death of George Floyd and what happened in its aftermath raised a lot of questions about the police througout North America: what they do, what they should do, and how they do it.
British Columbia was no exception.
The provincial government has set up an all-party special committee tasked with delving into the Police Act and coming up with a series of reforms to ensure that security and safety in this province is set up in a way that benefits the majority of people who live here.
The Act, now 45 years old, sets out how policing works in B.C. Green Party interim leader and Saanich North and the Islands MLA Adam Olsen is a member of that committee.
Olsen explained that one goal is to find a way to reduce the burden on police officers’ shoulders and bring in more professionals who are better qualified to handle some of the calls that now fall on RCMP.
“Right now we’ve put an awful lot on the shoulders of our police force to respond to calls that they might not be trained for. I’m thinking about mental health calls for example,” he said. “We’re not necessarily using our resources appropriately with the right person with the right qualifications.
”I think that part of what I hope comes out of this is that we recognize that every call to 911 isn’t necessarily a criminal incident. What’s important here is that we are matching the expertise with the problem, rather than just leaving it up to the police [officer] or other first responders who then have to deal with something that they’re not necessarily trained for,” he added.
Policing in B.C. is a massive and varied job. An officer in Ahousat has a very different experience than one in Langford. However, there are some factors that come into play no matter where an officer is stationed.
“A lot of the statutes that are created by government put the RCMP as a de facto person who can look after that statute,” said Insp. Jeff Preston of the Campbell River detachment. “Every law has a set of rules saying who can enforce it, and you would think that under the mental health act that would be a mental health worker. That is the case, but also, by the way, it can be enforced by a police officer.”
“Sometimes, as an officer, you are it. You might be the only government agency in the particular town…In a lot of cases, the police become the de facto mental health worker, the probation officer, you name it. We have to make up the safety net,” he added.
For example, “Quadra [Island detachment] looks after Cortes, but they don’t have a detachment on Cortes, it’s a boat ride over.”
Communities can give recommendations into detachment size and priorities. Olsen said one idea could be to stretch the responsibility among different levels of government, particularly bringing more of that up to the provincial level.
“I think that the province has a lot more responsibility in this than a local government does, though I think local governments are the closest to their people. There has to be a really close relationship between the provincial government… and the community so we can clearly understand what the community’s expectations are and their concerns and that we can be matching up the correct service for the issue that they’re trying to address,” he said.
“In a lot of instances, federal and provincial governments have been in the process of downloading a lot of these responsibilities to local governments, but not necessarily funding the response to the level that is required for them to deal with the situation.”
“We need to makes sure that when a community’s police force is not at its full complement, what does that mean and how is it addressed? When a community identifies that it has standards that it would like, recognizing that every community is unique and they have different ideas and standards that they would like to be met with their community public safety. Is there the flexibility for that to happen?”
Campbell River is home to multiple other agencies that could have a larger presence when responding to 911 calls. Preston said that he and the detachment have good working relationships with these agencies, and that often RCMP presence is requested by mental health workers going on certain calls.
“There’s lots of times that we get calls from them about going to a particular place where they don’t feel safe to go,” he said. “They’re walking into the woods to check on someone, they do want and need the police presence.”
Under a reformed Police Act, there could be teams made up of mental health workers, first responders (like ambulance paramedics), as well as police officers that respond to a certain kind of call. Responders who are trained in local First Nations cultures could also be beneficial, particularly for calls to detachments that cover multiple communities.
Right now, communities and the other groups get their mandates from the provincial government. What is needed, according to Olsen, is a change to how we look at policing at a provincial level.
“What’s important is that we start with understanding how these resources are funded and how they’re deployed and that as a society we’ve got it straight. We’re deploying the correct services for the problem,” he said.