A more moral policy

By Rob Wipond, October 2014

Victoria Police change policies on Mental Health Act arrests.

When arrested under the Mental Health Act, people will now be advised of their rights and allowed to make telephone calls “if reasonable and safe to do so,” according to new Victoria Police Department policies. Police will also leave written reports at the psychiatric hospital.

The changes came about after complaints by Gordon Stewart and Vince Geisler, and an article in Focus (see “An Overabundance of Caution,” December 2013). 

In Geisler’s case, a human resources manager fired him and then contacted police to express concern about his well-being. Geisler was surrounded at his home by heavily armed police officers. Even though Geisler was “calm and cooperative” according to police records, he was denied the right to contact a lawyer, taken to hospital, locked in seclusion, and drugged unconscious. He was released the following day. 

A doctor decided Gordon Stewart was delusional and detained and drugged him in part because Stewart’s story of why he was apprehended by police didn’t square with what the doctor had heard. Police hadn’t left a written record, and it turned out Stewart’s story was completely accurate. 

Stewart’s complaint was dismissed years ago; Geisler complained in 2011.

“A lot of the questions you were asking [in the Focus article] made us sit back and realize that the status quo needed to be looked at,” said Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner. Additionally, during community consultations, Elsner heard similar complaints from others about mental health arrests. “A lot of times, even though we’re doing our best to help them, sometimes our systemic process was making things in fact worse for these people.”

“I’m relieved that they can’t do this to anybody else, the way they did it to me,” said Geisler of the policy changes. “There’s still a lot of room for them to abuse things in there, but it certainly tightens things up.”

“I’m dismayed that it took this long,” added Geisler, who suffers from anxiety and traumatic memories from the experience. “And it does nothing to address what was done to me…Damage has been done to many people.” Geisler said police should have known their duties under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, many argue that the problem is that British Columbia’s Mental Health Act does not conform to the Charter. 

Elsner suggested that VicPD reluctance to change, prior to his arrival in January, may have had to do with police focusing only on legality. “In policing in general, we [often] take a very technical law view to our policies,” said Elsner, “as opposed to really looking at it from a balance of a humanistic perspective as well as a very strict legal perspective.”

Elsner said VicPD considerations eventually became not only about what BC law said, but about best practices. “We sat down as a command team and we had this discussion: ‘At the end of the day…is it morally the right thing to do?’”

What does Elsner hope the changes achieve? “That we provide a better level of help and support to people who are in mental health crises, and not add to their issues.”

Editor’s Note: In September Rob won a Western Canada Magazine Award in the Public Issues category for “An Overabundance of Caution.” He’s also been short-listed for a Jack Webster Award for “Coup de Police,” published in Focus, November 2013.