Police chief Wayne Holland presented Detective Constable Nathaniel Holt with a Chief Constable's Commendation at an awards ceremony last Tuesday for his courageous conduct while intervening in an attempted suicide.

COLUMN: This is what a mental health crisis looks like

The police are struggling to deal with inundation of attempted suicide and mental health calls.

When I first moved to the Kootenays six months ago I made a point of introducing myself to Wayne Holland, Nelson’s chief of police. I spent an hour in his Stanley Street office scarfing mini-chocolate bars, admiring his impressive collection of police hats and checking out photos of a trip he took to Thailand a few years back. Holland has the broad-shouldered swagger of a career cop, a droll sense of humour and a disarming approachability. We got along well.

We talked about a number of different things that day. Marijuana came up, of course, as did the Shambhala Music Festival (and the resulting “Shambhala Zombies”). Holland told me the police department hasn’t added a new officer since the 90s, has budget issues and is dealing with a recent increase in violent crime and robbery. But the most urgent thing he wanted to let me know about was the rise in mental health crises, and the lack of resources to deal with them.

Holland used to work on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, where they introduced a successful program called Car 87 that pairs mental health workers with police. He advocated for the program to be introduced here, as many of his charges were spending entire shifts dealing with the same troubled individuals over and over again, in increasingly problematic situations they weren’t trained for.

Ultimately the program would save the department money, Holland believes.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t approved.

Holland told me Nelson police officers respond to approximately 1,000 mental illness calls per year. Some individuals get picked up multiple times a week. Anybody who has spent any amount of time on Baker Street can attest to routinely seeing marginalized people in distress, some residents and others obviously transient or homeless. Inevitably we all decide, day by day, who we think deserves our help and who doesn’t.

The police, on the other hand, don’t have that same luxury. They’re obliged to care, or at least act, often under close scrutiny from the community. And at the police commendation ceremony at the Hume Hotel last week, they were recognized for it.

In the moments before the ceremony started, while I was tinkering with my camera in the back of the crowded room, I noticed that five of the six awards Holland was handing out that day were for “courageous and humanitarian conduct” during attempted suicides. Here were concrete examples of the mental health crises Holland had told me about.

One of the first to receive his award, Constable David Laing, was involved in two suicide attempts in two years. Both times he seriously injured his knee in the process, first grappling with a suicidal male on the Prestige Inn boat dock and then later wrapping his arms around a female who was attempting to throw herself off the big orange bridge. He was nearly hauled over the side with her.

It’s one thing to talk about “mental health crises”. It’s another thing to, as Holland put it, “hang perilously over the side of the big orange bridge for a significant period of time so you could support the entire weight of a combative individual suicidal female”.

Anyone who has ever seen an action movie already knows exactly what that looks like, but on September 14, 2013 this was real life.

Holland also gave a commendation to Detective Constable Nathaniel Holt, whose young daughter was sitting in the audience. It was Father’s Day last year when he was thrown into a nightmarish scenario straight out of a horror movie: a butcher knife wielding man running through downtown vowing to end his life.

I want you to picture for a moment the scene that Holt came upon that day. By the time he caught up to the troubled man, who had initially made a scene in a downtown business before charging out hysterically, was sitting despondent in a pool of blood. Holt didn’t know whether the man still had the knife, or what kind of condition he was in. My reaction in this situation would be a sprint-paced retreat.

Holt, instead, attempted to reason with the man as he drew closer. But then he was tackled without warning, and found himself wrestling with the man in the street. He used a taser to subdue the individual.

The incident could have easily devolved to the point where lethal force was required, but Holt’s decision-making on the spot saved the man’s life. This was an example of the best possible outcome in these situations.

Recently, we’ve had an example of the worst possible outcome. I started writing this column before the recent incident in Slocan, which (as most of you already know) ended tragically and provides an example of the stakes involved in these crises. Details are still sketchy, and it will be some time before we have a clear idea of what happened, but I’d like to second what we wrote in our October 15 editorial, in response to negative online comments directed at the police: “…Had the suspect escaped, or hid inside a house and harmed an innocent bystander, we believe (commenters) would be complaining that the police didn’t do enough.”

No matter how that scenario turned out, people were going to complain. And that’s fine. But I’ll make something really clear: I wouldn’t want to trade places with the ERT team responsible for finding Peter DeGroot. I’m glad I don’t have to make the excruciating, life-and-death decisions involved in attempting to bring him into custody. I’m thankful someone hired them to do exactly that while I stay safely at home, watching Facebook for updates.

So while it’s fairly easy to mud-sling, accuse and rant on social media, I’d like to encourage everyone to keep in mind both the positive and the negative outcomes of these recent events, and also the extreme amount of pressure these heroic cops are operating under.

Here’s a question: If that suicidal woman had been successful in dragging Constable Laing off the bridge, or if Constable Holt had found himself on the receiving end of a slashing butcher knife, do you think the purse-string honchos would be more or less likely to approve extra funds for mental health training and programs like Car 87? Would the Nelson Police Department finally get a new officer? What, exactly, is it going to take?


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