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Police, medics team up to help mentally ill

Pilot project takes ‘patient-focused’ approach
By Jamie Komarnicki
For the Calgary Herald May 19, 2010 7:19 AM

Calgary police and social workers are teaming up to try to provide treatment — not jail time — for people with mental health issues who are experiencing crisis situations.

The Police and Crisis Teams is a venture between the Calgary Police Service and Alberta Health Services that pairs a police officer and mental health clinician to respond to calls where people may have mental illness or addiction issues.

Many of the callers are homeless and have committed only minor, non-violent crimes when they’re brought to the attention of authorities, said Calgary police Chief Rick Hanson.

It’s been a long-standing source of frustration for officers on the street, who might not feel that an arrest is warranted but don’t have the proper resources to help, he said.

The new PACT partnership can "effectively start to target some of those social issues that need a different approach," Hanson said Tuesday.

The program is a three-year, $2.4-million pilot project funded by the provincial government’s Safe Communities Initiative.

Teams are based out of the Sheldon M. Chumir Centre in the Beltline. Calls come in through Calgary police dispatch; once the situation’s been assessed and a mental issue is highlighted, the PACT team is dispatched, said Valerie Wiebe, an executive director of mental health and addictions for AHS.

The teams say they’ve already provided help for dozens of people since the pilot program hit the streets in Calgary in January.

In one case, a team was called to help a mentally ill chronic offender known to downtown officers for regularly committing minor crimes, said Const. Stewart Bain, who works with mental health clinician Kristen Adolfson.

They were able to help the man find a place to live and put him in contact with support workers, Bain said.

Two teams have been on the street since January and the agencies hope to have five teams working by summer.

Alberta Health Services chairman Ken Hughes called the system "genuinely patient-focused." The program is similar to efforts in Edmonton and Grande Prairie that have seen a high rate of success, according to Hughes.

Justice Minister Alison Redford said PACT will help front-line officers distinguish between those who should be incarcerated and those who simply need help. "We know we can’t arrest our way out of or into safe communities," Redford said.

"We have to ensure that, where possible, we’re dealing with people on a proactive basis to help them get out of crisis situations before they make decisions that put them into conflict with the law, and therefore in the justice system."

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