The City of Red Deer is piloting a program in which a social diversion team can be called, instead of police, to respond to at-risk individuals who are in crisis. (Black Press file photo).

Red Deerians with mental illness or addictions will be helped by crisis team instead of police

‘We can’t police our way out of some problems’

If someone is found sleeping in a doorway or making a drunken disturbance in Red Deer, another option will soon be available, besides calling police.

On Monday, city council approved $525,000 in one-time spending out of reserves for a one-year pilot project.

The money will be used to form and mobilize a social diversion team to help “at-risk, high-needs” Red Deerians who are in crisis, but not a danger to themselves or others.

It will provide a better way of dealing with disturbances caused by people with addictions and mental health issues, since law enforcement officers have often expressed that they “can’t police our way out of some problems,” said the city’s protective services director, Paul Goranson.

Mayor Tara Veer also hoped that, since crime and public safety continue to be the city’s top priorities, this will alleviate pressure from the police, fire and ambulance services.

After the pilot program is running, concerned citizens will call 2-1-1 instead of 9-1-1 when they fear that someone could come to harm without intervention, is experiencing a mental-health crisis, or is intoxicated or otherwise impaired.

The 2-1-1- dispatcher will alert the multi-person social diversion team. Trained members will arrive on scene, evaluate whether the person at risk needs shelter, health support, transportation or mental health service — then deliver the individual to the right place for help.

Tricia Hercina, the city’s social planning manager, told councillors that Red Deer is following Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie in trying this new approach to handling non-emergency disturbances.

Alberta Health Services is also committing some financial support, said Hercina, who noted municipalities with social diversion teams are saving money by freeing up their police and paramedics to deal with actual crimes and emergencies.

Edmonton Police Service found officers saved an average of 36 minutes each time a non-emergency call was diverted. For every dollar spent on the team, the savings was $1.91, added Hercina.

According to Edmonton’s data, dropoffs to emergency shelters for intoxicated people was 50 per cent of the “warm handoffs” made by their crisis diversion team. Far fewer dropoffs were also made to homes or health facilities.

Coun. Lawrence Lee said he couldn’t support the expenditure — not because he didn’t believe in the program, but because the request for such a sizable amount was coming outside city budget talks.

But the rest of council agreed to the spending — despite some concerns about how the program will be funded after a year, and about possible duplication.

Coun. Michael Dawe noted since various other crisis and outreach teams are already working in the city, he hoped service providers will find ways of amalgamating some of these services.

Coun. Vesna Higham felt the “big ask” was worth it since social diversion teams in other communities have saved police from having to respond to some 5,000 calls annually.

Council heard there’s wide community support for the pilot, including both school divisions, Red Deer College, Urban Aboriginal Voices, the RCMP and Children’s Services.

No time frame was provided for when it will start.

Red Deer City Council

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