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New West offers to lead pilot project on police reform

Project would build on city’s submission to province’s plan to reform Police Act
New Westminster city council it taking action on efforts to implement police reform. File

New Westminster wants to lead a pilot project to address police reforms relating to mental health, poverty and homelessness.

In May, council approved a submission from the City of New Westminster to the province’s special committee on reforming the Police Act, which will be making recommendations on a variety of issues included the role of police, the scope of systemic racism in B.C.’s police agencies and measures that may be needed to modernize the Police Act. One of the items in the city’s submission was recommending the creating of a pilot project to address the mental health crisis and issues related to poverty.

On June 21, council approved a motion to have the city convene a time-limited task force to lead city efforts to build partnerships with senior levels of government and service providers in order to bring the pilot model to reality. The city will hire a consultant to lead community outreach to understand community needs and to refine the specifics of the pilot model.

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa, who chaired a four-person working group, proposed the latest motion.

 “I think we all knew when we submitted that report that the province wasn’t going to snap their fingers and have it as a reality,” she said. “This is just one part of ongoing work that we are doing.”

Coun. Patrick Johnstone said he was initially reluctant to support the motion because of concerns about the workload of staff who are involved in this work.

“I recognize that this is very much consistent with the direction we gave the special committee on reforming the Police Act and I think it’s important that we demonstrate that we as a city are willing to do this work and to back up what we have asked that committee to ask police to do,” he said. “I think it is important that we do show some commitment to this work and start to give some direction to how we want to see this work done.”

While he’s happy to support having the city take the lead on this work, he said he’d like the city to ask the provincial government to help fund this work and provide resources. He said the work advances the province’s goals regarding health care, homelessness, addiction, mental health and police reform.

One of the goals of the policing model proposed by the city is to reduce call volumes for police response, by redirecting calls to more appropriate resources.

Mayor Jonathan Cote, who also chairs the police board, said the motion builds on the “really good work” done by the city in its submission to the province. He said it’s also consistent with the police board’s motion on police reform.

“Essential to this is the work we are doing to want to have a different way to do crisis health-care management, and to find appropriate care that often falls on the police that, likely in many cases, would be better handled in a different health-care model,” he said.

Cote said there are a lot of good conversations about moving in this direction, but nothing happens so nothing changes. He believes New West is an excellent community to try out a new type of model that could hopefully lead to the development of a model that works in other urban communities.

“I think this motion sets the scene for us to take that logical next step if we really do genuinely want to push for this new model,” he said. “I think this is central to all of our discussions around police reform. If we really want to be serious about that, think we need to step up our push regarding this type of a model.”

Coun. Jaimie McEvoy, who also served on the submission task force, believes that forming a task force to help create a pilot model and hiring a consultant are great follow-ups to motions passed by council and the police board.

The city’s submission to the Provincial Special Committee on the Reform of the Police Act includes a variety of recommendations, such as: developing a pilot program based on a new model to address crisis health management; investing in housing; decriminalizing drugs; and increasing access to detox and public treatment facilities. Other recommendations include: developing non-police community teams to respond to people in crisis; ensuring diversity in the makeup of policing; collecting and publishing disaggregated data (on race, socio-economic status, disability and other factors) related to police interactions; and using data to make evidence-based decisions.

“We need fundamental changes in the policing model to move away from a focus on enforcement to address the root causes of social issues that disrupt our community’s quality of life and well-being,” Nakagawa said in the city’s video submission. “We can create a safer, more inclusive and vibrant community by providing the right resources in the right places, and that doesn’t always mean policing. What we need is housing, health care and community services, so all members of our community have a chance to thrive.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus
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