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Vancouver police push back on 'defund' movement, say communication could improve

VANCOUVER — Members of the Vancouver Police Department pushed back against the concept of defunding the police on Thursday, saying they offer valuable work and help in the community.

VANCOUVER — Members of the Vancouver Police Department pushed back against the concept of defunding the police on Thursday, saying they offer valuable work and help in the community.

Superintendent Martin Bruce, who heads the force's personnel services department, acknowledged there might be a disconnect between how the community perceives the work the force offers and how the department views its work.

"A lot of things we've been doing in the community, especially in regards to mental health for example... the VPD has really been the leader in a lot of initiatives," he said during a technical briefing on the department's outreach, training, mental health initiatives and oversight.

"If we're not getting that across properly, that's something we should fix."

The briefing featured presentations from four officers about the force's mental health unit, its professional standards section and its force options training unit.

The call to defund police, spending more of the police budget on other health and safety issues, spread across North America as people protested the police in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

The briefing also plays out during public discussion of high-profile deaths where police in Canada were first responders for mental health calls and wellness checks.

Sergeant A.J. Benefield, with the mental health unit, talked about the progress made in recent years in responding to incidents with a mental health component.

In 2008, 31 per cent of calls involved at least one person with mental health concerns, she said.

That dropped to 16.2 per cent of calls in 2019.

"Although some may say we shouldn't deal with mental health calls, 20 per cent of Canadians are living with mental illness," said Benefield, who attributed the unit's success to its variety of approaches.

Harsha Walia, the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said in an interview Thursday that police should never be the first option to respond to situations involving mental health.

"It defies logic that an armed officer who ... represents authority and a level of fear and intimidation would be the first person to approach someone going through distress," said Walia. "That's just simply not from any logical perspective an appropriate health care response."

The police briefing also comes as the department and the city engage in a back-and-forth over budget cuts.

Vancouver council passed a motion in May calling for a one per cent cut to the police department's budget as the city struggled with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The police board, which oversees the department, called for that cut to be rescinded in early June.

The force is open to changing its training as education on responding to mental health situations evolves, Bruce said.

But a reduction in its budget could affect its work, especially with figures showing mental health challenges in the community have increased, he said.

"So, reducing our budget when all these things are going on, I'm not sure who's filling that void."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 16, 2020.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press