London police officers made 1,500 trips to the emergency room last year — at a cost of $12 million — as they responded to calls involving individuals dealing with mental health issues.
That price tag is already complicating budget crunch being felt by the London Police Service in 2013, but unless something is done to change the system, the cost is expected to reach $16 million by 2015.
These problematic numbers were presented as part of the Donner Study, which was a report presented to the Police Services Board during their regular meeting on Wednesday (Jan. 23). The report studied the cost impact of mental health issues on the police service’s budget.
Police Chief Brad Duncan said a closer look at those 1,500 visits clearly explains the budgetary dilemma the service now finds itself in. With two police officers involved in a mental health occurrence, Duncan said it takes on average 7.2 combined hours before the situation is dealt with.
That lengthy delay, Duncan said, leads to issues such as increasing delays in service time.
“When we end up in an occurrence that takes us down to emergency it means those two officers aren’t involved in other calls for service,” Duncan said. “That is why people experience wait times on the street. That is why the remaining officers are extremely busy answering calls for service.”
The study was launched in 1999 following the deinstitutionalization of mental health services. Duncan said he asked for it to be replicated in 2011/2012 because “we intuitively knew the problem wasn’t getting better.”
Duncan also said he asked for the report because the service doesn’t “simply sit back and not look at opportunities to be better,” but actively engages in processes to find better ways to operate.
The chief said the board members are fully aware of the impact of mental health calls, although he did say Ward 11 Councillor Denise Brown, who is a new member, did express surprise about the length of time involved.
For her part, Brown said as far as she was aware, the costs involve not just labour, but equipment such as vehicles as well. And while she said she was looking for more information, it was clear to her that unless an incident starts at the beginning of the officers’ shift, “this could very well add overtime costs to the call.”
Brown also said “handling mental health issues has been an issue, a very expensive one, for many years.”
The research in the Donner study documents police contact with individuals in the city living with mental illness from 2000 to 2011. The report looked at what has changed, how frequently the police are involved, the nature of the contact, and the resource implications.
“The overarching concern I have is this shouldn’t be a law enforcement response,” Duncan said. “Yes we will get the call, but we want to be able to turn this individual over. That should start to mitigate the big dollars assigned to mental health issues.”
The chief said the problems detailed in the report coincide with the Jan. 10 announcement by Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews that the province was providing $3.5 million in additional funding for mental health and addictions services across southwestern Ontario.
The added funding will make possible, among other services, the Mobile Crisis Response Team. The team is designed to decrease the strain on both emergency rooms, and police officers, by filling the need for mental health services in the community.
“We are first-responders on many fronts, but this is one where we know we have to work towards reducing the amount of time we take,” said Duncan, who added reduced pressure on the service’s budget is another byproduct of the province’s added funding.
“Our analysis shows we should be adding 13 officers this year to deal with the increasing calls for service,” Duncan said. “We decided to hold the line, for one, because of the economic climate in the community, but also because I think we will be able to demonstrate we will be able to reduce our response to mental health and better provide service to other parts of the community.”
Although the response team will help ease the load on police officers, the chief said those dealing with mental health issues also benefit. Duncan said the service is trying to move from “a custodial model to a care model” where individuals who need support and assistance from qualified individuals can receive it in a timely manner.
“We can offer great street triage, which is what I call it. Officer gets there, assist the individual, but it isn’t therapeutic and it isn’t long lasting,” Duncan said.
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