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Mental Health

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Arrest or Treatment?

The Vancouver Police Department speaks up for treatment...

Steve Schnitzer

Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (8), pp. 23-24

Shouldn’t all people who suffer from mental disorders receive appropriate and timely treatment and services so they don’t end up in situations that place them in contact with the justice system? Shouldn’t we have systems in place that effectively deal with people who are continually involved in a cycle of crime due to mental disorders and addictions? Perhaps these seem like unattainable goals, but I believe they must be the goals to strive for. People who have an illness must receive the treatment they need, so they can live healthy and productive lives.

All too often Vancouver police officers deal with chronic offenders who have drug addictions, mental disorders or a combination of both. This is frustrating for police, as it is very apparent that the justice system is not equipped to address the underlying issues that lead to these offences. Let’s face it: some people commit crimes because they cannot control themselves due to mental illness and/or drug addiction.

Vancouver is certainly seeing first­hand the devastating effects that occur in communities as a result of drugs, mental illness and chronic offenders. The Downtown Eastside and, more recently, the downtown core bounded by False Creek, Burrard Inlet, Stanley Park and the Downtown Eastside, have become areas where many people commit crime because they are addicted, or simply cannot help it due to mental illness or other unfortunate circumstances. Simply arresting people time after time for the same offence is not an approach that the police want to take—especially since, in most cases, medical treatment and other social services could provide longer­term solutions.

To illustrate the magnitude of the problem, the Vancouver Provincial Court sees from 35 to 40 offenders with symptoms of mental illness appear each day in relation to criminal charges. There are also more than 9,000 intravenous drug users in the Vancouver area. Some more heavily addicted drug users need to break into as many as 20 cars per day to satisfy their addiction.1

In the past few years, two mayor reports have been released in response to some of the issues facing Vancouver. In 2001, A Framework for Action: A Four-Pillar Approach to Drug Problems in Vancouver1 was released in response to the drug problem in the Downtown Eastside. In 2005, Beyond the Revolving Door: A New Response to Chronic Offenders2 was released in response to the increasing level of street crime and chronic offenders in Vancouver. Both reports highlight the need for more services from those traditionally outside the justice system and for more partnerships between stakeholders inside the justice system and those traditionally outside the justice system.

At the present time, although there are ways to divert some of these offenders from the justice system into treatment programs, the number of programs and services available simply cannot keep up with the demand.

Another question to consider is: should we wait for a person to commit a crime before offering them appropriate services? Services and programs should be proactively available to keep mentally ill and addicted persons from having contact with the justice system.

Much needs to be done to address these problems facing Vancouver. However, it is encouraging that, during the last several years, stakeholders are now coming to the table to discuss them. At the very least it is now recognized that some of these social and medical problems cannot be solved by the police and justice system alone, and that it takes a number of stakeholders to address the issues. Ultimate solutions will not be easy, but having the appropriate agencies at the table makes it more possible to achieve solutions.

The Vancouver Police Department continues to sit on many stakeholder committees advocating for more funding and services so that mentally ill and addicted people can receive the treatment they need, so they do not commit crimes. Future change in this direction will not only benefit these offenders, but will also increase the quality of life for all members of the community through reduction in property crime and street disorder. From the police perspective, it would be far preferable to arrest and charge only people who are in control of their actions—and not those whose actions are influenced by their mental illness or their drug addiction.

About the author
Steve is a 25-year member of the Vancouver Police Department and is currently Commander for District One, which comprises most of the downtown core of Vancouver
  1. MacPherson, D. & Rowley, M. (2001). A framework for action: A four-pillar approach to drug problems in Vancouver. Vancouver, BC: City of Vancouver.
  2. BC Justice Review Task Force. (2005). Beyond the revolving door: A new response to chronic offenders. Victoria, BC: Author.

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