Hamilton Police pilot a fresh approach to crisis response

Meeting crises with support as they are unfolding, Hamilton Police Services’ (HPS) Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team is the first program in Canada to pair police officers with mental health workers for frontline response. The rapid response team sets itself apart from other crisis programs the Hamilton police use with its capacity to respond immediately, rather than following up a few hours or days later.

Every week, Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., a team goes out on patrol together in a marked cruiser, answering the most urgent needs in the Hamilton community. Still in its first-year pilot phase, the program has already demonstrated significant results that bode well for a continued run, and was cited in the Iacobucci report, Police Encounters with People in Crisis, as a prime example of law enforcement providing an informed response to mental health needs in their community.

Calling in a crisis

“With the combined expertise of a mental health worker from St. Joseph’s and a police officer,” enthuses Hamilton police Inspector Glen Bullock, “we’re able to respond more effectively to people on the front line, and at the front end of problems that arise before they escalate.”

While a crisis may involve mental illness, it could be any one of a thousand sets of circumstances that have suddenly crystallized into an urgent situation. Bullock explains, “What meets the criteria for a “crisis” is really on a continuum. On one end of the continuum, there could be someone on a precipice threatening to jump. On the other end, there could be someone who doesn’t suffer from mental health illness, and is generally a healthy person, but who happens to be in a state of emotional crisis. That can happen after a traumatic event, like a car accident, or it could be family trouble, it could be a fight with a coworker, it could be just about anything that might provoke a call to the police for help.”

The rapid response team meets these clients and provides quick access to services. Perhaps most importantly, they can identify what issues are at work, and they can differentiate between mental health illness and an emotional crisis, something Bullock notes is huge in determining next steps. He adds, “There’s also a huge benefit for the mental health workers and the police officers, who learn from each other, feel like they’re really contributing, and have increased job satisfaction.”

Getting results

“The results we’re seeing speak volumes,” says Bullock.

Though all of the Hamilton Police Services’ on-patrol officers receive specialized training to some degree, and eventually they will also be trained in crisis intervention, there’s no doubt in Bullock’s mind that the rapid response team officers approach situations with a different set of knowledge.

Bullock elaborates, “Even when we consider that the rapid response team is much smaller than the force overall, our numbers show that they make far fewer apprehensions. They have increased capacity to resolve issues on the spot or refer to the services that are needed. What’s more, of the apprehensions they do make under the Mental Health Act, more of the people who they apprehend go right into medical or psychiatric care, instead of coming into police custody.”

And for someone in a state of emotional crisis, early intervention can make all the difference. When a young woman called the Hamilton police and threatened to “disappear” with a knife, and possibly use it, Bullock recalls how quickly the rapid response team reacted, “The team reached this woman soon after our dispatchers identified this caller as being in crisis. They learned that she was overcome with grief following the sudden loss of a close friend. The mental health worker provided emotional support for her on the spot. A call that might otherwise have resulted in a point of entry into the justice system instead culminated in getting this person counseling and grief services.”

Bullock remembers another time, a rapid response team happened to be in the area of a car accident and stopped by to see if they could help. “When they arrived they were able to recognize immediately that the driver was in shock and on the verge of a panic attack,” she says. “Having a mental health worker there to provide support for that driver on-scene made an enormous difference in the emotional impact of the event for the driver.”

Cross-sector collaboration

And what was the key to developing this successful program? Collaboration from day one between law enforcement and mental health services providers was critical to developing the rapid response team and getting it off the ground. The Hamilton police worked closely with St. Joseph’s Healthcare, the area’s primary mental health services provider and a partner in providing this service to the community.

This isn’t their first joint effort. Hamilton Police Service and St. Joseph’s have been collaborating for over 17 years on various triage and training systems to best serve their community. Previously, they worked together to develop the Crisis Intervention Training that half of all HPS officers are currently trained in, and the COAST services and referral program, which Bullock notes paved the way for the Rapid Response Team.

Bullock concludes, “In policing, we need to make important decisions in immediate time frames that can have major impacts on peoples’ lives. Everyone benefits when there are multiple perspectives and forms of expertise involved in making these decisions. People are getting to the service that they need more quickly, and a more streamlined process frees up resources to provide service to more people in our community.”