A year of pandemic isolation has driven well-being checks to the top of the list for Winnipeg Police Service calls.
While police work out a new way to respond to crisis calls in collaboration with non-police partners, community safety groups maintain a first response from the uniform does more harm than good for marginalized people.
"I really do believe that there needs to be a different response unit that is trained traditionally and clinically to respond to these situations, to be able to respond to well-being checks for marginalized communities," Rylee Nepinak, leader of volunteer-based community group Anishiative, said Tuesday.
"I do think that well-being checks should be done by organizations that already have a built-in relationship with that community."
According to the WPS 2020 statistical report released this week, police received just shy of 19,000 calls for well-being checks last year — representing about 12 per cent of civilian calls for service.
That was a notch up from 2019, pushing well-being checks above domestic incidents as the most frequent type of service call for the first time.
According to WPS Chief Danny Smyth, while well-being checks have always been one of the top-three calls police receive, the uniquely isolating circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic made them all the more common.
"Certainly, isolation and the pandemic are probably contributing to that — people aren't able to travel around as freely as they were," Smyth said Tuesday. "We were literally called in to check on the well-being of friends and loved ones on behalf of family members."
Well-being checks can encompass many types of call, Smyth said, including people in crisis, dealing with addictions-related issues or whose loved ones are concerned for their health.
"Some of it is pretty innocuous, some of it is pretty critical," said Smyth, noting officers often don’t know what to expect until they arrive on scene.
As well-being checks consistently rank among the most common calls to police, Smyth noted the service has been working to implement a new system — already being tested in other jurisdictions — that would have police partner with mental health experts, mobile crisis units and social services.
During a presentation to a municipal council committee in June, police described the new initiative — known as "PACT teams" — as an effort to decriminalize crisis, diverting people away from the criminal justice system and into social programs.
Smyth said the initiative remains in its "planning phases."
While the rise in well-being checks and the efforts to partner police with social supports is unsurprising to Nepinak, the community group leader said including police in the initial response can still cause fear for marginalized community members in crisis.
"People usually associate the uniform with being in trouble," Nepinak said.
Instead, Nepinak has been advocating for a new mobile crisis unit trained to respond to situations with both traditional and clinical approaches to health — a crisis response strategy completely separate from the police.
"I am 100 per cent for allocating funds to a mobile crisis unit that has these Indigenous values and has clinical training to be able to respond to well-being checks and mental health crisis."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.