Brandy Sand’s first night on the street was a tough one.
On July 2, the social worker wrapped herself in a bullet-proof vest and started her initial shift.
She was teamed with a Niagara Regional Police officer as part of what is known as the NRP’s Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team.
That night ended with two NRP officers suffering gunshot wounds in rural Pelham. One of the officers was shot through the neck and was lucky to survive.
She wasn’t part of the call. It wasn’t in her coverage zone.
However, the cops were dispatched to assist a man with mental health issues — and that’s her specialty.
“The reality hit me that I’m in a cruiser with front-line officers, and there is the potential for danger, but I am here to help,” said Sand, the crisis response team leader. “I’m here to help officers identify the signs, symptoms and behaviours of people in mental distress — and to prevent anyone getting hurt.”
The Response Team sends mental health professionals out on 911 with Niagara Regional Police officers. It is a new program in Niagara that is approaching its first anniversary.
“The reality is police officers don’t go to the Ontario Police College to become mental health workers,” Sand said. “They get very little education in that aspect. They come out and expect to hit the road and start fighting crime, but find themselves on calls that have nothing to do with the criminal justice system.”
She said when she first arrives at a scene, she is often mistaken for a police officer.
She wears a dark blue uniform and a Kevlar vest with a two-way radio slung across her shoulder. At a quick glance, the only difference is her vest, which says MCRRT. Her partner’s is emblazoned with POLICE. Of course, she doesn’t carry a Glock.
“We see the benefits of the program every day,” Sand said. “We’ve had more successes than challenges, that’s for sure.
“We had a call where a gentleman had knives in his car. He was under the influence and suicidal. I was able to negotiate with him to keep him safe until the police were able to go in and apprehend him.
“The officer and I have different strengths. Sometimes the officer’s uniform de-escalates things, like when you are dealing with a defiant youth.
“Other times — like when you have a situation with a battered woman — I can use my approach.”
Niagara Regional Police Chief Jeff McGuire gets a duty officer’s report twice a day detailing police activities over a 12-hour period. There are mental health calls or suicide attempts on just about every one.
From July to March 31, the program diverted 379 people from the hospital out of a total of 540 contacts in St. Catharines, Kelly Falconer of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Niagara branch said. Before the program started, they would have ended up in the emergency room.
She oversees the social worker component of the team.
“One of the bigger things that isn’t identified in the stats is how we have seen officers change their perspective,” she said. “They are starting to identify the person not as a perpetrator of a crime, but as somebody who is in crisis and needs help.”
She said the police have become much more open to using community-based services such as Safe Beds and urgent support programs.
“We weren’t sure of how front-line officers were going to react,” Falconer said. “We thought they might think of us as a pain in the butt. That is not what happened at all. They have been receptive to feedback and welcoming. It is a good partnership.”
While there are cities in Canada that have social workers meet police at the scene, Hamilton was the first police service in Canada to allow the workers to ride in the car with officers. Niagara used that program as a template.
“The advantage of this program is that the police can’t really put the call on hold and sit around waiting for someone to show up,” Falconer said. “The officers have to start dealing with the call the second they get there.”
McGuire wants to see the program expand across Niagara. It only runs in St. Catharines, though the specially trained social workers and officers act as resources for officers in other areas, who can reach them by cellphone.
The program doesn’t cost the police anything. The Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) picks up the tab for the social workers.
From the police side, uniformed officers aren’t making as many trips to the St. Catharines hospital, where they must spend time cooling their heels in the emergency room waiting for the hospital to assess and take responsibility for the patients.
By mandate, the officers can’t leave until that happens.
“We have drastically reduced the number of people who get apprehended,” McGuire said. “When it is just police officers responding, they don’t have a lot of choices. If it gets to the point where they feel the person needs to go somewhere, all they used to have was
“When the MCRRT team gets a call, the mental health worker has full access to the database. It may be someone we have dealt with many times. She can go in there and get the information and assess the situation.
“The person may not have to be apprehended. Often the social worker can guide the person to the right agencies and get the assistance he or she needs. They also arrange a follow-up the next day.”
McGuire said there have been times when the NRP has had as many as eight officers stuck at the hospital on mental health calls.
“In Niagara, every person we apprehend under the Mental Health Act has to come to St. Catharines,” McGuire explained. “Take, for instance, someone from Fort Erie. We have a small detachment there. If the call happens in the middle of the night, the officer has to drive from Fort Erie and stay in St. Catharines.
“If we lose too many officers, we have to bring in more on overtime to fill in.
“The program is good for the police — and it is good for the individuals in the community.
“The people we are dealing with on these calls don’t belong in a jail cell or the back of a police car in handcuffs. In some cases, they do need to go to the hospital, but it is better when that is the last resort.”
Const. Dan Dupuis is a seven-year veteran and had already taken crisis intervention training before the program started. He jumped at the chance to participate when the staff sergeant was looking for volunteers.
“It’s just like riding with anybody else, you have to get along,” Dupuis said. “They have hired good people. The officer has the final call on whether someone needs to be apprehended for their safety or the safety of the community — but I’m completely open minded about it. We work together to make the decision.
“If it is appropriate, we can find another option that will work out better for them.”
Police services board chairman Bob Gale was skeptical about the program when it started and said he would defer to the chief on it.
“The chief says it is working, and the officers on the street are finding it a valuable asset,” he said. “If it is working, that’s great. The police board always has to weigh the cost of any program we run.”
Mayor Walter Sendzik went out of his way to praise the teams.
Their efforts fit in perfectly with his Compassionate City initiative to make St. Catharines a kinder gentler place.
“Pairing an officer with a mental health worker creates a learning environment where they can better interact with vulnerable people,” he said. “Everyone benefits. The city benefits. The Niagara Regional Police benefit. The people benefit.
“At the centre of it is the person who is in a challenging situation. That’s the focus, and that is part of the Compassionate City project.
“Programs like this make a difference, and if we can weave them all together, we can accomplish something special here in St. Catharines.”
One thing Dupuis learned was that a little knowledge can go a long way.
It may be as simple as identifying the difference between self-harming behaviours — such as a teen cutting her arm repeatedly — and behaviours that are life-threatening and require hospitalization.
“If it is a 911 call, it is a significant crisis,” Falconer said. “In the past, if somebody had said, ‘I’m going to kill myself,’ the police would have said, ‘Get in the cruiser; you are coming with me.’
“Now, they are saying, ‘Tell me about that’ — and they can start an assessment.
“They find out the person doesn’t really want to kill themselves. They just want the pain to stop.
“They find ways to help them get what they want so suicide isn’t the only option — and the person starts thinking about living and what they are going to do next instead of suicide.”
Sand said one of her most gratifying moments came when she was talking to a hard-boiled, old-school officer.
“He said because of what he has learned, he was able to leave a 13-year-old girl at home, in good hands, with her family. After getting all the facts, the girl didn’t need to be
“She needed someone to listen to her. He left her at home, and her mom was going to follow up with Pathstone.
“When I heard that, I knew we were making progress. That’s why are here. To get the best outcome we can for people in crisis.”